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A Division Bench of the Delhi High Court yesterday delivered a split judgment on the issue of whether the Prime Minister’s National Relief Fund (PMNRF) is a ‘public authority’ within the ambit of Section 2(h) of the Right to Information Act (RTI).
The question arose in a writ petition filed by the PMNRF against the order of a Single Judge Bench which had, in turn, upheld the order of the Chief Information Commissioner directing PMNRF to disclose the details of institutional donors of the fund to the petitioner Aseem Takyar.
The first contention of PMNRF was that it was not obliged to provide any information as it is not a ‘public authority’ under the ambit of Section 2(h) of the RTI Act.
Secondly, the information sought is exempt under Section 8(1)(j) of the RTI Act as it relates to personal information, the disclosure of which has no relationship to any public activity. It was further contended that disclosure of the information would cause unwarranted invasion of the privacy of individuals. Therefore, no right to information can be enforced against PMNRF.
It was also contended by the Fund that it was not a public authority, as no specific expenditure is incurred by the Consolidated Fund of India, as there is no separate office of the PMNRF nor has any separate staff been allocated by the government for its management.
The petitioner, through Advocate Sanjeev Mahajan, contended that there would be no harm in disclosing the details of the donors and the beneficiaries of the Fund. It was argued that the information has been desired in larger public interest.
It was also argued that the disclosure of the information sought would reveal whether any personal bias is shown while funds are distributed.
Justice S Ravindra Bhat
Justice Bhat observed that from the contentions, the following two issues arose:
Justice Bhat stated that the directions of the Prime Minister inviting contributions and setting up a committee comprising himself along with the Deputy Prime Minister, Finance Minister, and other important state functionaries as ‘Managers’ of PMNRF cannot be deemed to be actions in a personal capacity.
He further stated that registration of PMNRF as a Trust for the purposes of income tax exemption, and obtaining of PAN of the said Fund qualify as an ‘order made by the appropriate government.’ Therefore, PMNRF must be deemed to be a ‘public authority’ within the meaning of Section 2(h)(d) of the RTI Act. He held,
“The object of the RTI Act is to promote transparency in the working of every ‘public authority’ and democracy requires an informed citizenry. Transparency of information has been considered vital to the functioning of democracy, to eliminate opacity in functioning and to hold Governments and their instrumentalities accountable to the governed. Therefore, in light of the object of the RTI Act, the term ‘public authority’ must be subjected to a liberal interpretation.”
With regard to disclosing the details of the donors, Justice Bhat held that the said demand was reasonable. He observed that the Fund does not offer any service to the donors or the beneficiaries. The relationship between PMNRF and the donors does not take colour of a ‘fiduciary relationship’.
It was further observed that citizens have a right to know about the management of a fund which is used for benign purposes, like providing relief in times of natural disasters. Disclosure of such information will ensure that the voluntary donations made by citizens are not appropriated by any government official.
With these observations, Justice Bhat upheld the order of the Chief Information Commissioner.
Justice Sunil Gaur
Justice Gaur dissented with the judgment of Justice Bhat, and held that the Fund could not be referred to as a ‘public authority’. He stated that the preamble and objective of creation of the ‘Trust’ must be kept in mind before applying the test to find out whether it is a ‘public authority’. He observed,
“A bare perusal of the above Preamble makes it amply clear that appellant-Trust is neither constituted by the Parliament nor by the Government and it is not managed by Government functionaries in their official capacity, but by multiple delegates.”
He further observed that exemption under the Income Tax Act by itself would not justify the conclusion that the Trust is a ‘public authority’.
“The cause for which Trust was created was purely charitable and neither the funds of this Trust are used for any Government projects nor is this Trust governed by any of the Government policies. So, how can this Trust be labeled as ‘Public Authority’?”
Justice Gaur held that PMNRF cannot be deemed to be ‘public authority’ on the premise that managers of PMNRF i.e. Prime Minister, Deputy Prime Minister, Finance Ministry do not act in the personal capacity. It is so said because these state functionaries manage the PMNRF in their ex-officio capacity.
“In fact, PMNRF is a Trust which is neither owned, controlled or financed by the Government.”
He also stated that since PMNRF is not a ‘public authority’ under the RTI Act, the second issue regarding information sought being within the public domain does not survive for consideration.
With these observations, Justice Gaur set aside the order of the Chief Information Commissioner.
The matter was then forwarded to the Chief Justice to be referred to a third judge for determination of the two issues mentioned above.