Case Summary and Outcome
The Respondents sought information about various banks from the Central Public Information Officer of the Reserve Bank of India and of the National Bank of Agriculture and Rural Development under Right to Information Act, 2005. The Reserve Bank of India refused to provide the information, arguing that it was in a fiduciary relationship with the banks. The Supreme Court directed the Reserve Bank of India to disclose the information.
The Reserve Bank of India (“RBI”) routinely audits and collects information from various banks. The respondents requested certain information from the Central Public Information Officer from the RBI and the National Bank of Agriculture and Rural Development under the Right to Information Act, 2005 (“RTI Act”). This information concerned the names of top defaulters on loans and fines and the penalties imposed by banks. Further information was requested regarding rules and regulations of inspection, reports on co-operative banks gone on liquidation, and offences committed by banks. The RBI refused to provide the same on the ground that the information is confidential and that it has accessed the same in a fiduciary capacity.
The Respondent approached the First Appellate Authority, which found the replies of the RBI appropriate. In the second appeal, the Central Information Commission directed the RBI to provide the requisite information. The petitioner, RBI, filed a writ petition before the Delhi and Bombay High Court for a stay on the order of the Central Information Commission, which was granted to them.
The judgment of the Supreme Court was delivered by Justice M.Y. Eqbal. It combines eleven cases with similar facts. The central legal issue was whether the information requested under the Right to Information Act of 2005 could be denied by the Reserve Bank of India and other banks to the public on the ground of economic interest of the State, commercial confidence, and fiduciary relationships with other banks.
The Court first discussed the legislative history of the RTI Act and the objectives it was meant to achieve. Paraphrasing the then Prime Minister’s opinion on the RTI Bill, it was stated that the Government needs to intervene in social and economic affairs to prevent corruption, wasteful expenditure and thus, an effective mechanism was needed for the same. Thereafter, the Court briefly surveyed the structure of the RTI Act through its preamble and other sections.
On the central legal issue, the Court went into an elaborate discussion on the meaning of the term “fiduciary relationship”. It negated the contention that the RBI is in a fiduciary relationship with the banks since “the reports of the inspections, statements of the bank, information related to the business obtained by the RBI are not under the pretext of confidence or trust.”1 The Court further elaborated that, being a statutory body, “RBI is supposed to uphold public interest and not the interest of any individual bank.”2
The Court then briefly analyzed section 2(f) of the RTI Act, which defines information to include “… information relating to any private body which can accessed by a public authority under any other law for the time being in force.”3 Using this inclusive definition, the Court held that, even if a fiduciary relationship existed between the RBI and other banks, section 2(f) would render them accessible to the public.
On the contention that disclosure of requested information would hurt the “economic interests” of the nation, the Court reiterated the importance of information in furthering economic interests. In the words of the Court, “[b]ecause an informed citizen has the capacity to reasoned action and also to evaluate the actions of the legislature and executives, which is very important in a participative democracy and this will serve the nation’s interest better which as stated above also includes its economic interests.”4
The Court noted that open governance is the foundation of democracy and national interest cannot be confined to economic interest only. The Court drew a distinction between certain issues that could harm the national economy such as: national economic interest, disclosure of information about currency or exchange rates, interest rates, taxes, the regulation or supervision of banking etc., and lower level economic and financial information. It held that information regarding contracts and departmental budgets should not be withheld under this exemption. It highlighted the necessity to consider the stage at which information is to be provided, the nature of information and consequences that will follow in the public domain.
The Court concluded by upholding the orders of the Central Information Commission requiring disclosure of information sought for.