Transparency watchdog, the Central Information Commission (CIC), has overturned its own order and said there was no public interest in disclosing names of the donors of the electoral bonds while upholding the public authority’s contention that such information cannot be shared under the Right to Information Act as it is held in “fiduciary” capacity.
“There appears to be no larger public interest overriding the right to privacy of the donors and donees concerned,” said information commissioner Suresh Chandra, in his order issued on December 21.
Maharashtra based RTI applicant Vihar Durve has sought details from the State Bank of India of those who bought electoral bonds from it and donated them to Bharatiya Janata Party, the Congress and the Left parties, among other political parties, from various branches of the bank in between 2016 and 2018.
The electoral bond scheme allows citizens and corporates to buy monetary instruments from the SBI and donate them to political parties, who can redeem them for money. Citizen groups have long been arguing that in the interest of transparency, the identity of such donors must be disclosed.
After being dissatisfied with the public information officer’s reply, who refused to provide the information saying it was third party information that cannot be shared, Durve filed an appeal with the bank’s First Appellate Authority (FAA).
The FAA also ruled that the information related to electoral bonds issued to political parties was held by the SBI in fiduciary capacity and that the names of the donors could not be disclosed as these fell in the bracket of ‘third party information’.
The 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 had contended that declaring the names of donors will serve larger public interest to ensure transparency in funding of the political parties. He also said in his petition that electoral bonds are an opaque way of funding with citizens not knowing from whom, especially the corporate, the money is coming. “Citizens need to know which companies are funding which party to infer whether they are influencing policy making,” Durve said.
The applicant filed a second appeal with the CIC, as provided by the RTI Act in September 2018. On December 21, 2020, the CIC upheld the 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 itself, which exempts a public authority to give a citizen information available to a person in his fiduciary relationship, if the competent authority is satisfied that the larger public interest warrants the disclosure of such information”.
According to the Association for Democratic Reforms, political parties have received a total of 12,452 electoral bonds worth Rs 6210.39 crore till January 2020. The BJP received about 60% of the total funding through electoral bonds and Congress about 31.5%. The ADR also said that the fund received through electoral bonds was more than the money generated through the sale of coupons, vouchers or cash donations for the BJP. The ADR in October filed an application in the Supreme Court asking for early hearing of its petition demanding scrapping of the electoral bonds.
In January 2020, another bench of the CIC had said that the electoral bonds should be more transparent and names of those buying these bonds should be declared.
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