The Right to Information Act, 2005 since its inception has been very effective in ensuring transparency and curbing the rampant corruption in the working of public offices. It empowers the citizens of India to ask for any information, document or progress of work from any public office. They have the right to gain information about the working of any government institution in India. And the Reserve Bank of India is no exception to it, or Is it?
In November 2011, the Central Information Commission (C.I.C) gave an order in the case of Mr. Jayantilal N. Mistry v. Central Public Information Officer, Reserve Bank of India; to the R.B.I thatits audit and inspection reports and the actions taken by it against the directors and managers of the banks that had gone into liquidation be disclosed. This disclosure was ordered keeping in mind that a significant amount of public funds is kept with such banks and financial institutions. Thus, it is only rational that the public has the right to know about the working and functioning of such banks and institutions. And merely because such a disclosure of information can have an adverse effect on the public confidence in these institutions, the information under the R.T.I Act can not be denied. The C.I.C also observed that transparency is the best check on irregularities, arbitrariness and corruption, as it allows the citizens themselves to act as monitors of public interest. And given the same, the bench stated that the information was not exempted under Section 8(1), and even if it were, still Section 8(2) of the R.T.I Act would mandate disclosure of any such information.
This was followed by other nine orders such as Mr. Vivek Madhukar Sirvalkar v. Public Information Officer, R.B.I ; directing the R.B.I to disclose various information required from it in the corresponding appeals. The R.B.I challenged these decisions in various High Courts and obtained stay on them. These cases were then clubbed and transferred to the Honorable Supreme Court. And all the High Courts disposed of the petitions stating that the outcome therefrom would be governed by the decision of the Honorable Supreme Court.
All these cases arising out of the Transfer Petitions of the year 2012 were placed before the Honorable Supreme Court in the landmark case of R.B.I v. Jayantilal N. Mistry. In all of these cases, some information was requested from the R.B.I, but it was denied on the ground of commercial confidence and public interest. R.B.I also contended that it was exempted from disclosing the information under Sections 8(1) (a), (d) and (e) of the R.T.I Act as the information had been received by the R.B.I from the banks in a fiduciary relationship and any disclosure will affect the economic interest of the country. It stated that the information obtained by its inspecting officers was confidential in nature, and referring to Section 28 of the Banking Regulations Act it submitted that even if the information is to be published in the public interest it can only be done in a consolidated form and not otherwise. It was also argued that disclosure of such information and scrutiny will lead to misinterpretation in the minds of public, and rather than serving the public interest it would have an adverse impact on the public confidence on banks leading to a major setback for financial stability of the country that rests on the public confidence. The contentions of R.B.I rested on the believe that the provisions of the R.T.I Act cannot supersede the provisions concerning confidentiality of the R.B.I.
Rejecting the contentions of the R.B.I, the Honorable Supreme Court held that no fiduciary relationship between R.B.I and the banks existed as such because the inspection reports, bank statements and business related information obtained by R.B.I was not under an ostensible believe of confidence or trust. Moreover, neither the banks nor the R.B.I works in interest of each other. As per the Court, the exemption given under Section 8(1)(e) of the R.T.I Act applies only to certain information, the disclosure of which is undesirable or unwarranted. When an information is available with an authority not in a fiduciary relationship but by a mandate of law, then such an information should not be hidden. As is in this case, banks and other institutions are under an obligation to provide information to the R.B.I, and any such information obtained by the R.B.I cannot be said to have been obtained in a fiduciary character.
Dealing with another contention of the R.B.I that the information it has is that of private bodies and therefore can not be requested under R.T.I. The Honorable Supreme Court held that from a plain reading of Section 2(f) of the R.T.I Act it can be understood that any information which has been obtained by a public authority from a private institution can be requested. So, even if banks and the R.B.I shared information in a fiduciary capacity, still Section 2(f) of the R.T.I Act would mandate it to be accessible to the public.
Rejecting R.B.I’s contention of the disclosure effecting public and economic interest of the country, the Honorable Supreme Court stated that under Section 35-A of the Banking Regulations Act, R.B.I has the power to issue directions to the banks in the interest of public. Moreover, R.B.I is supposed to uphold the interest of public and not of banks. Any disclosure by the R.B.I will not be against the public interest, as informed citizens can take reasoned actions that will serve public interest better. As for the argument of disclosure hurting the economic interest is concerned the court labelled it as totally baseless, misconceived and absurd. Therefore, in the year 2015 the Honorable Supreme Court upholding the decision of C.I.C, observed that C.I.C had considered the cases properly and its decision did not suffer from any arbitrariness, irrationality or an error of law.
But despite the Supreme Court’s judgement for disclosure of information, R.B.I in November 2016 published a Disclosure Policy on its website that listed specific information which it itself exempted from being disclosed under the R.T.I Act. It is worth noticing that these information were similar to those which were held not to be exempted by the Honorable Supreme Court. Then in November 2018, the C.I.C served a show-cause notice to then R.B.I governor Urjit Patel for not complying with the judgement of the Honorable Supreme Court, to which R.B.I had replied that banks hold deposit on demand and any information that has been requested, if becomes accessible to the public will have an impact on the financial stability. Owing to this non-compliance with the orders of the Honorable Supreme Court, a contempt notice was issued to R.B.I in January 2019.
Later in April 2019, giving judgement in the contempt petition namely Girish Mittal v. Parvati Sundaram & Anrs., the Court ordered the R.B.I to remove the disclosure policy that was uploaded in November 2016 and despite the continuous violation of the Honorable Supreme Court’s judgement decided to give it a last chance. It was in December 2019, that on an application by the R.B.I, the Honorable Supreme Court in an interim order told it not to make public any inspection and risk assessment report under the R.T.I Act until further orders. A plea filed by various banks to review and recall the 2015 judgement also remains to be adjudicated.
Whether R.B.I is under an obligation to disclose any information under the R.T.I Act or not, even after several adjudications, remains unanswered. This is because R.B.I has time and again, through every possible means tried not to disclose the information requested from it. But R.B.I needs to understand that transparency is required for improvement and accountability to the citizens, as citizens are the best vigilance monitors. Had it been transparent earlier, maybe there would have been some curb on Nirav Modi and Vijay Mallya, and the citizens would not have had to suffer. However, R.B.I should at least now understand the importance of transparency and make sure the same does not happen in future.
Mr. Jayantilal N. Mistry v. Central Public Information Officer, Reserve Bank of India, CIC/SM/A/2011/001487/SG/15434
 Mr. Vivek Madhukar Sirvalkar v. Public Information Officer, RBI; CIC/SG/A/2011/002033/15493
 Reserve Bank of India v. Jayantilal N. Mistry, (2016) 3 SCC 525
 id., at pg. 2
 Jayant Das, ‘Asking RBI to reveal information under the RTI Act’ (2019) The Pioneer, available at https://www.dailypioneer.com/2019/state-editions/asking-rbi-to-reveal-information-under-rti-act.html (last accessed on 31st May 2020)
 Girish Mittal v. Parvati V. Sundaram and Anrs., (2019) SCC Online SC 607
 Samanway Rautrey, ‘RBI told not to disclose sensitive bank reports under RTI for now’ (2019) The Economic Times, available at https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/industry/banking/finance/banking/rbi-told-not-to-disclose-sensitive-bank-reports-under-rti-for-now/articleshow/72895364.cms (last accessed on 31st May 2020)