In public interest

The Central Information Commission’s directive to the Reserve Bank of India to disclose the names and other details of the top 100 businessmen and industrialists who have defaulted on repayment of loans from banks gives yet another boost to the right to information. Though the right is now considered as part of the most important citizenship entitlements, it is not without a fight that it finds acceptance in new areas. The CIC has, through a number of orders in the past, expanded the scope of the right and taken it to areas which were considered beyond the limits for citizens. In the process, the definition of public interest has also undergone a change and the territory of confidentiality has steadily shrunk.

The RBI had refused to furnish information relating to default in loans taken from public sector banks and the names of defaulters on the argument that such information was fiduciary in nature and disclosure would amount to a breach of trust between the banks and customers. But the CIC’s  view that public interest overrides fiduciary obligations strengthens the spirit of the RTI. It is when tested against actual cases that concepts like public interest or a fiduciary relationship get clearly defined and acquire new meaning. It is also possible to look at the issue from a different angle. 

Though the relationship is fiduciary in nature, is a client entitled to protection under it after he has defaulted on loan obligation? If tax defaulters’ names can be published loan defaulters have no reason to claim special privilege and banks have no reason to hold them back. The need to maintain confidentiality is based more on commercial than moral considerations. Both considerations should subserve greater public interest, as the CIC has noted. It is known that large amounts of public funds are caught in delays and loan defaults and big business has a major share in them. The public has a legitimate right to know the details. This can even act as a deterrent against default.

The CIC’s ruling has come in the wake of another ruling which asked the RBI to make public the audit reports of co-operative banks. The RBI had rejected this demand also. It is surprising that the apex bank considers the financial position of even public entities confidential. The CIC has done well to expand the scope of the RTI in both cases, but efforts are on to undermine it.

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