New Delhi: The reading of the word “disposed” – used by the Central Information Commission in its order – as “dismissed”, first by a single bench and then by a division bench of the Delhi high court, appears to have saved the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) from the task of divulging information in corruption cases against Central ministers and black money, which the Narendra Modi government claimed to have brought from abroad.
The original application in the case was filed by whistleblower IFS officer Sanjiv Chaturvedi in August 2017 under the Right to Information Act, 2005.
Details sought of corruption cases
Through the application filed with the PMO, Chaturvedi, who was also awarded the Magsaysay Award for exposing corruption by government functionaries, sought details of corruption complaints against Union ministers, the inquiries conducted into these complaints and the final action taken by PMO. His query pertained to cases from the first three years of the NDA government’s first term – from June 1, 2014, to August 5, 2017.
The application also sought information about the quantum and value of black money retrieved from abroad and deposited into the accounts of citizens, along with efforts made by the PMO in this regard.
Chaturvedi specifically sought information related to action taken on his complaint against the then Union health minister J.P Nadda, which was submitted to the prime minister and on which the PMO had twice sought a detailed reply from the health ministry on October 8, 2014 and February 10, 2015.
PMO said query was ‘generic and vague’
The PMO in its reply on October 9, 2017, refused any to divulge any information on the corruption complaints and termed the query “generic and vague”. As for the queries on black money, the PMO said that the “request made is not covered under the definition of information as per Section 2(f) of RTI Act”.
Chaturvedi challenged this assertion of the PMO in the Central Information Commission. In October 2018, the CIC rejected the rationale provided by the PMO and ordered it to give a “specific reply/information” within 15 days.
After CIC’s directive, PMO gives new reasoning
In its response to the CIC order, the PMO said finding details on corruption cases would involve a “thorough search of numerous files” and would “disproportionately divert the resources”.
The PMO said:
“This office receives complaints against various union ministers/ high level functionaries from time to time …… after taking the needful action, the records are not kept in any single master file or collated and kept in one place …….. in view of above, the collation of information sought will require the undertaking of thorough search of numerous files. Such an exercise will disproportionally divert the resources of the office from the normal discharge of its functions and attract the provisions of Section 7(9) of Right to Information Act”.
Section 7(9) of the RTI Act says that in the case of disproportionate diversion of resources, information may not be given in the format being asked by the applicant.
Regarding the query on the issue of black money, the PMO remained silent on the quantum of it while refusing to disclose the details of the efforts made by citing Section 8(1)(h) and Section 24 of RTI Act. It claimed that such a disclosure would affect the investigations underway in this regard. Section 8(1)(h) provides an exemption from disclosure if it impedes investigation while Section 24 excludes certain intelligence and security organisations from the ambit of RTI Act.
CIC said PMO’s new reply “not correct”
Chaturvedi again filed a complaint before the CIC in November 2018 challenging the PMO reply. The matter was taken up for hearing in April and June 2019. In its order passed on June 18, 2019, the CIC clearly said that the new rationale provided by the PMO for the denial of information in connection with the minister’s corruption complaints ‘is not correct’.
However, the CIC remained silent on the issue of the quantum of black money while agreeing with the new reasoning provided by the PMO under Section 8(1)(h) for denial of information regarding efforts made in this regard.
Regarding the complaint to the prime minister against Nadda, the CIC declared that information has been provided to the appellant as per available records.
HC single bench said CIC “rejected” plea, whereas it was “disposed”
Chaturvedi took the matter to the Delhi high court in July 2019. The petition was dismissed on the very first day by a single bench of Justice V. Kameshwar Rao which stated that, “surely a complaint under Section 18 is not the remedy and the CIC has rightly rejected the same”.
However, the CIC order of June 18, 2019, had used the word “disposed” and not “dismissed” in paragraph 13 and had stated that “with the above observations, the non-compliance petition is disposed off”.
The single bench order further stated that the “petitioner is within his right to seek such remedy as available in law challenging the communication dated November 1, 2018”. Since it is well known that all orders passed by CIC are challengeable before the Delhi high court under Article 226/227 of the constitution, the question is if the court overlooked the fact that the CIC had subsequently given a final finding on Chaturvedi’s petition challenging the November 2018 communication of the PMO.
Division bench of HC too dismissed plea on first hearing
When the single bench order was challenged before the division bench of the Delhi high court, it also endorsed the earlier judgment of the single bench and again dismissed the petition the same day without issuing any notice. In paragraph five of its order, the division bench also used the word “dismissed” regarding the CIC order dated June 18, 2019, which had actually used the word “disposed in terms of above observations”.
The division bench further stated that if the appellant was aggrieved by the PMO’s communication dated November 1, 2018, he was “always at liberty to approach the appropriate forum in accordance with law”.
Petitioner’s lawyer raises concerns at the silence on black money
As these two orders of the Delhi high court have gone in favour of the PMO, it no longer needs to reveal information on either the corruption cases against Central ministers or the quantum of black money recovered from abroad.
Meanwhile, Chaturvedi’s counsel Sudershan Goel, who had argued this case before the HC division bench, expressed surprise at what the “appropriate forum” was for appealing a CIC order. He claimed it was trite law and that the remedy lies only with the high court under Article 226 /227 against orders of the CIC.
The Delhi high court had in its judgment in Suhas Chakma ruled that the CIC cannot review its own orders while in this case the CIC first directed the PMO to disclose all the information in its order of October 2018 and when PMO took de novo grounds, it reviewed its own orders in June 2019, on the issue of black money.
Goel also expressed surprise as to why the high court kept silent on the issue of the quantum of black money and how, on the issue of corruption complaints against central ministers – in which the CIC on both occasions gave orders in favour of the applicant and rejected the excuse given by the PMO – and the disclosure of information of corruption complaints, the information commission’s orders had been unduly nullified by the high court by the incorrect usage of the word “dismissed” instead of “disposed” regarding the CIC order.
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