MEA and CIC’s absurd reasons for refusing details on PM’s travel

The CIC’s acceptance, without assigning any reason, of the MEA’s stand that breakup of expenditure on PM’s foreign trips would affect the country’s sovereignty, raises questions on CIC’s credibility

Photo courtesy:
Photo courtesy:

Saurav Datta

It is no secret that from the very start, the Narendra Modi-led Government has prized secrecy over calls for transparency, and has pulled out all stops to keep information under wraps. Information, which the citizens of India have a fundamental right to have access to. Now it appears that the Central Information Commission is also acting in a manner of kowtowing to the government.

This is because of the latest ruling by CIC (Chief Information Commissioner) RK Mathur decreeing that the details of public expenditure incurred on Modi’s chartered flights for numerous foreign tours would be immune from disclosure because of national security reasons.

From CIC RK Mathur’s order decreeing that disclosure of details of public expenditure incurred on PM Modi’s chartered flights for foreign tours would prejudicially affect the sovereignty and integrity of India

Mathur’s 11 January decision comes closely on the heels of his divesting Information Commissioner Madhabushi Sridhar of jurisdiction over matters relating to HRD (Human Resources Development). No reasons were accorded, though unconfirmed reports say that Mathur’s action was dictated by Sridhar’s December 2016 ruling directing that details of Modi’s education records from Delhi University be made public. It is worthwhile to mention that Modi’s claims of educational qualifications, especially his Master’s degree, have always been mired in controversy.

Mathur’s Order regarding Modi’s foreign tours came on the basis of an appeal filed by veteran RTI activist Commodore (Retired) Lokesh Batra against the Ministry of External Affairs’ CPIO’s (Chief Public Information Officer) denial of an information request.

Batra had asked the government to furnish:

  • Details on the basis of which Prime Ministers’ chartered flights’ bills were cleared since 2013, as well as
  • A breakup of the whopping ₹2,45, 27,465 spent on Modi’s two-day Bhutan trip in June 2014
  • He had also sought details of the 14-15 bills of Air India of Modi’s flights which were pending, especially because the publicly-funded airline was reeling under losses totaling ₹13-14 crores

The Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) and the PMO clarified that the expenses on chartered flights are borne out of Lok Sabha funds (which are paid by the public exchequer) but also invoked Sections 8 (1) (a) and 8 (1)(g) of the RTI Act, 2005 to decline to divulge any further details. Section 8(1) (a) exempts the disclosure of information which could endanger the sovereignty and security of India, while 8 (1) (g) allows the suppression of information on grounds that disclosing such information could jeopardize a person’s life and security [emphasis added].

It is undoubtedly true that Mathur’s decisions have come as a shot in the arm for the Modi sarkar. It is also a kind of fait accompli for a Government determined to keep crucial information away from public scrutiny.

In his ruling, Mathur neither goes into any discussion on Batra’s contentions, nor provides any reasons for his conclusion, despite the latter putting forward a strong claim that since the funds were paid by the public, the disclosures ought to be made on grounds of public interest alone. If one goes by plainspeak, Mathur merely (and meekly) accepted the contentions of the government, and ruled in favour of the Government.

Is this not outrageous, when the fundamental tenets of administrative law mandate that reasons must be given for any decision by a judicial or quasi-judicial authority? One must state with regret that Mathur’s silence on reasons in both cases is a deafening one, in that it speaks volumes about the trepidation of the Chief Information Commissioner.

Photo courtesy: PIB
Photo courtesy: PIB
Prime Minister Narendra Modi departs for Japan after a brief stopover, in Bangkok, Thailand on November 10, 2016

In an article in May 2015, Aruna Roy, one of the principal architects of the RTI Act, had highlighted the government’s evasive strategies, while in September of that year, the Congress party also detailed how the law was being gradually diluted and authorities under it being dismantled and disempowered.

Back in 2014, when Outlook magazine filed a series of RTI applications to get details of the expenses incurred on Modi’s Bhutan trip, all its pleas were stonewalled by the government. In every case, the specious plea of national security was taken, and no reasons were provided to substantiate the same.

It is undoubtedly true that Mathur’s decisions have come as a shot in the arm for the Modi sarkar. It is also a kind of fait accompli for a Government determined to keep crucial information away from public scrutiny.

Recently the Central Information Commission ruled that the CBSE must disclose board examinations’ details of former HRD Minister Smriti Irani. The ruling, coincidentally, was again delivered by Sridhar. If this time around, Mathur divests Sridhar of the charge over CBSE also, there would be little left to fend off the clamour that the CIC, scared of incurring a vindictive government’s wrath, is indulging in Modi-appeasement.

Saurav Datta juggles his time between legal education and freelance journalism, and between Mumbai and Delhi

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Published: 19 Jan 2017, 3:07 PM