Delhi HC sets aside CIC direction on disclosing information related to PM CARES Fund

The Delhi High Court on Monday set aside an order of the Central Information Commission (CIC) that directed the disclosure of information about the PM CARES Fund to an RTI applicant.

The high court said the information sought by the RTI applicant has been sought from the Central Public Information Officer (CPIO) of Income Tax Department and not from the PM CARES Fund and the department does not treat PM CARES Fund as an authority.

“Since the information sought for by the respondent (RTI applicant) relates to a third party, PM CARES Fund ought to have been heard. Section 11 of the RTI Act prescribes that any information related to a third party can only be divulged after giving notice to the said third party.

“In view of the above, the CIC ought to have followed the procedure specified under Section 11 of the RTI Act before ordering for grant of information as sought for by the respondent herein,” Justice Subramonium Prasad said.

The high court allowed the petition filed by the Income Tax authority challenging the CIC’s April 27, 2022 order.

The high court noted that section 138(1)(b) of the IT Act mandates that information relating to an assessee can only be supplied subject to the satisfaction of Principal Chief Commissioner or Chief Commissioner or Principal Commissioner or Commissioner, as the case may be.

“The satisfaction of Principal Chief Commissioner or Chief Commissioner or Principal Commissioner or Commissioner is, therefore, necessary before such information can be divulged. That satisfaction cannot be abrogated to any other authority under a general Act for divulging the information sought for,” it said.

It added that the court was of the view that “the CIC does not have the jurisdiction to direct furnishing of information, provided for in Section 138 of the IT Act. In any case, even if they had the jurisdiction, the failure to give PM CARES, notice of hearing, would in itself have vitiated the impugned.

“Accordingly, the writ petition is allowed and the order dated April 27, 2022 is set aside,” Justice Prasad said in the 23-page order.

The single-judge bench had earlier noted that the issue of whether the PM Cares Fund is a public authority is presently pending before a division bench of the high court.

The respondent, RTI applicant Girish Mittal, had filed an RTI application before the Income Tax Authorities seeking certain information pertaining to an exemption application under the Income Tax Act in relation to Prime Minister’s Citizen Assistance and Relief in Emergency Situations Fund (PM CARES Fund) as well as all the other exemption applications filed before the Income Tax Authority from April 1, 2019, till March 31, 2020.

The IT Department said that the CIC order, which refused information pertaining to other exemption applications but issued directions with respect to the PM CARES Fund, is contrary to the law and is inconsistent.

“It is well settled that judicial orders must follow a consistent reasoning and therefore if other exemption applications and their decisions were rejected on the ground of section 8(1)(j), there is no reason whatsoever as to why the same principle should not have governed the requests for disclosure of information in so far as Para (a) and (b) of the RTI Application is concerned which deals with a specific exemption application number relating to the PM Cares Fund,” the petition said.

Section 8(1)(j) of the RTI Act exempts information which relates to personal information, the disclosure of which has no relationship to any public activity or interest, or which would cause unwarranted invasion of the privacy of the individual.

The petitioner stated that the information relates to a third party i.e. the PM CARES Fund, which is a registered trust and therefore the impugned order could not have been passed without hearing that party.

The respondent in the petition argued that the PM CARES Fund is a body owned and controlled by the Government of India.

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In the present case, the respondent’s plea for information was first rejected by the CPIO on the ground that the information sought was personal in nature and was not related to any public activity or interest, and would cause unwarranted invasion into the privacy of an individual.

The First Appellate Authority upheld the rejection while stating that PM CARES Fund did not fall within the purview of the RTI Act.

Subsequently, the respondent approached the CIC which refused to provide information pertaining to other exemption applications on the ground that it entailed disclosure of personal details of various third-party entities.

It, however, directed the CPIO to reply to the respondent indicating the factual position concerning the availability of documents in terms of paras (a) & (b) of RTI application, that is, copies of all the documents submitted in exemption application in relation to PM CARES Fund and file notings granting the approval within 15 days.

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