CIC alters view on electoral bond buyers

Hindustan Times, New Delhi | By
Dec 24, 2020 12:30 AM IST

In January, another bench of the CIC said in an unrelated case that the electoral bonds process should be more transparent and the names of those buying them should be declared.

The Central Information Commission (CIC), India’s transparency watchdog, has said no public interest is involved in disclosing the names of buyers of electoral bonds while reiterating the argument that such information cannot be shared under the Right to Information (RTI) Act as it is held in a “fiduciary” capacity -- a move that reflects a change in position from an order it issued in January.

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“There appears to be no larger public interest overriding the right to privacy of the donors and donees (recipients) concerned,” information commissioner Suresh Chandra said in an order issued on December 21.

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In January, another bench of the CIC said in an unrelated case that the electoral bonds process should be more transparent and the names of those buying them should be declared.

Maharashtra-based RTI applicant Vihar Durve had sought details from State Bank of India (SBI) of those who bought electoral bonds from the bank and donated them to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the Congress, and the Left parties, from domestic branches of the bank between 2017 and 2018.

The electoral bond scheme allows citizens and corporate entities to buy monetary instruments from SBI and donate them to political parties, which can redeem them for money. Citizen groups have for long argued that in the interest of transparency, the identity of such donors must be disclosed.

After being dissatisfied with the reply of SBI’s public information officer, who refused to provide the names of the donors on grounds that it was third-party information that cannot be shared, Durve filed an appeal with the bank’s First Appellate Authority (FAA).

FAA also ruled that the information related to electoral bonds issued to political parties was held by SBI in a fiduciary capacity and that the names of the donors could not be disclosed because they fell in the bracket of “third party information”.

Section 8 of the RTI Act prohibits sharing of third-party information without written consent of the third party. However, the section also says that the information can be shared if the information officer is convinced that it would serve “larger public interest”.

Durve, in his petition, contended that declaring the names of the donors will serve the larger public interest of ensuring transparency in the funding of political parties. He also said that electoral bonds were an opaque way of funding with citizens not knowing who, especially e corporate entities, were donating money to the parties.

“Citizens need to know which companies are funding which party to infer whether they (corporate) are influencing policy making,” Durve said.

The applicant filed an appeal with the CIC in September 2018.

On December 21, 2020, CIC upheld SBI’s stand, holding that “disclosure of names of donors and the donees may be in contravention of provisions contained in section 8 (1) (e) (j) of the RTI Act.”

The section exempts a public authority from giving citizens’ information available with it in fiduciary relationship, if a competent authority is satisfied it would not serve larger public interest.

According to the Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR), political parties have received a total of 12,452 electoral bonds worth Rs 6,210.39 crore until January this year, from January 2017. The BJP received about 60% of the total funding through electoral bonds and Congress about 31.5%.

ADR also said the funding received through electoral bonds was more than the money generated through the sale of coupons, vouchers or cash donations for the BJP. ADR in October filed an application in the Supreme Court seeking an early hearing of its petition demanding scrapping of the electoral bonds. saying it was in violation of various transparency regulations.

Anjali Bhardwaj of National Campaign for People’s Right to Information said the CIC order was a setback for bringing in transparency in the issue of electoral bonds. “We did not expect this from transparency watchdog to issue such an order. It is a setback,” she said.

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