The Central Information Commission (CIC) has again directed the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) to disclose the list of large loan defaulters to activist Nutan Thakur. However, Central Information Commissioner Suresh Chandra said the RBI need not provide copies of files related to the list.
In November 2018, the CIC had issued a show cause notice to RBI Governor Urjit Patel, holding him responsible for not disclosing the same information, in a different case. The recent CIC order comes a month after the Supreme Court backed the transparency watchdog against the central bank in an April 26 ruling. The SC gave the RBI “a last opportunity” to withdraw a November 2016 Disclosure Policy which stonewalls the disclosure of many types of information under the Right to Information Act, including the list of wilful defaulters and annual inspection reports. The policy was directly contrary to the court’s December 2015 judgement that the RBI could not withhold information sought under the RTI Act, said an SC Bench hearing contempt petitions filed against the central bank for not complying with that judgement.
In the wake of the SC ruling, the CIC has again directed the RBI to partially disclose the details requested by Ms. Thakur. She had initially filed her RTI request in September 2017, on the basis of a lecture by RBI Deputy Governor Viral Acharya who said the RBI had directed banks to file insolvency applications against 12 large accounts comprising about 25% of the total non-performing assets.
The RBI’s chief public information officer (CPIO) had denied the request citing a section of the RTI Act allowing exemptions for commercial confidences which would harm a third party. Ms. Thakur appealed and the first appellate authority in the RBI also denied the information using a different rationale, citing a section of the RBI Act as per which the credit information submitted by all banks shall be treated confidential.
Ms. Thakur then appealed to the CIC. At the hearing on May 2, 2019, she submitted that “the information is being sought purely in public interest because the list of defaulters is of immense public importance and the people have a right to know about these defaulters,” says the order. At this point, the RBI said it was prepared to release the information, claiming that the list of defaulters had not been finalised on the date of the original filing of the RTI application.
However, the RBI argued that the files relating to the list pertained not only to wilful defaulters but also the burrowers suffering from economic distress, and hence the files could not be released. In his May 22 order, Mr. Chandra agreed with the RBI defence on this point and ruled that only the list itself had to be disclosed within 10 days.