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Refusal to Answer RTIs Unbecoming of RBI: Ex-CIC Habibullah

New Delhi: Wajahat Habibullah, India’s first-ever Chief Information Commissioner, has slammed the Reserve Bank of India for refusing to divulge information related to the demonetisation drive and said note ban was a matter of high public importance that deserved to be answered.

“This refusal to answer RTI queries is highly unbecoming of the central bank. The national security clause cannot supersede the issues common citizens of the country are facing. All these RTIs must be appealed at the highest level,” Habibullah told News18.

The former IAS officer said all the information that had been sought by activists ought to be in the public domain because of its national importance.

“Such information cannot be kept behind closed doors. It concerns a major public interest and deserves to be answered. How can it affect the national integrity or security?” said Habibullah who was also the chairperson for the National Commission of Minorities.

Habibullah also criticised one of the instances when RBI did divulge information with regard to consultations held before the dramatic announcement by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on November 8 to scrap old denomination notes of Rs 500 and Rs 1000.

In response to an RTI filed by a journalist, RBI stated that it proposed that the government demonetise the old notes only three hours before the PM made the announcement, and said eight out of its 15 directors were present in the board meeting.

Habibullah said that it only hints towards “unpreparedness” on part of the government.

“I have high regards for the Prime Minister’s Office, but if the government was informed only three hours before such a crucial decision was taken then it hints towards unpreparedness and the lack of details in the plan drawn,” he said.

RTI activists allege that the RBI has consistently invoked various exemption clauses under the RTI Act, 2005, to excuse itself from divulging details regarding the details of the discussions that led to demonetisation and other details.

Mostly the central bank has invoked exemptions under Section 8 (1) (a) of the RTI Act that deals with the sovereignty and strategic interests of India.

Various RTI queries had been filed by activists and media houses post demonetisation, to which only selective answers were issued by RBI.

The central bank had recently refused to disclose details of preparatory meetings held before the demonetisation move announced on November 8 besides shying away from sharing names of the stakeholders consulted before taking the decision, a prominent RTI activist told News18.

Rakesh Dubbudu said that RBI refused to answer the queries citing Section 8 (1) (a) of the RTI act.

“I am sure the reply to this RTI will expose a very deep-rooted thing related to demonetisation, which might prove to be very damaging for the institution. Even if you do not want to lay out the details of minutes of meetings, how does it affect the sovereignty and integrity of India if RBI discloses the number of meetings it had with stakeholders before announcing demonetisation? Were there any meetings at all?” Dubbudu told News18.

Venkatesh Nayak, another RTI activist had received a similar reply from RBI after he had sought details of the board meetings leading up to the decision to demonetise Rs 1000 and Rs 500 currency notes.

“These queries were there because some media reports talked about think tanks around the country commenting that they had recommended various ways of tackling the problem of black money including demonetisation, but the course of action that the Government eventually followed was not what they had recommended,” Nayak told News18.

RBI in its reply rejected access to its Board meeting minutes and recommendations made to the government citing the similar exception under Section 8(1) (a) of the RTI Act.

As for the query regarding representations received from the public, the CPIO invoked Section 7(9) saying that the information cannot be provided in the form sought as it would lead to disproportionate diversion of resources of the organisation.

The Supreme Court in December 2015, while ordering RBI to disclose certain information related to private banks sought under RTI, had commented on the “attitude of refusal adopted by RBI to refuse declaring information.”

“It had long since come to our attention that the Public Information Officers (PIO) under the guise of one of the exceptions given under Section 8 of RTI Act, have evaded the general public from getting their hands on the rightful information that they are entitled to. This attitude of the RBI will only attract more suspicion and disbelief in them,” the apex court observed.