Details of donation received by electoral trusts and their further distribution to political parties are neither personal information nor held by Income Tax Department in fiduciary capacity, the CIC has said in an order aimed at ensuring transparency in electoral funding. The Central Information Commission (CIC) has directed the I-T Department to make public the list of electoral trusts formed during 10 years since 2003-04 and whether they received income tax exemptions.
A division bench of the Commission also directed the department to take views of these trusts on furnishing the details of contributions received by them which have been further distributed to political parties. It said the CIC direction to disclose Income Tax returns of the political parties became final as that was neither challenged nor reversed.
This means the details of contributions to political parties from electoral trust are supposed to be disclosed. Similarly, the financial resources of electoral trust cannot be classified under any category of secrecy or be exempted under any clause of Section 8 of the RTI Act,” the Bench held. Hence, it said, the details of contributions received by the electoral trusts and distributed to political parties is neither given in fiduciary capacity nor can be considered personal information.
Section 11 of the RTI Act requires to take view of the third party before any decision on disclosing information related to them is arrived at. Notably, the I-T Department had refused to disclose the information sought by an applicant three years ago, saying the information about trusts is a “personal information” and held by it in a “fiduciary capacity” and there was no public interest in its disclosure. The RTI Act allows disclosure of such information, if there is a larger public interest involved in it.
Electoral trusts are non-profit companies established for receipt of donations from person or a company and distributing the same to political parties. The trusts get income tax exemptions as well. During the hearing, the appellant brought to the notice of the Commission that General Electoral Trust donated a total of Rs 131.65 crore to seven political parties during financial year 2014-15. The appellant, Neeti Biyani, contended that the details of those who donated to the trust is unknown.
The Bench comprising Information Commissioners Basant Seth and Sridhar Acharyulu directed the department to disclose within two months the names and addresses of all the electoral trusts and other charitable trusts formed between 2003-04 and 2013-14 and whether they claimed exemption from Income Tax and if it was given along with reasons.
“The I-T Department holds the information furnished by the electoral trusts for the benefit of democracy and people at large and disclosure of such information will serve the benefit of those beneficiaries and hence it should be disclosed,” the Bench held. The Commission said there is “larger public interest” in disclosure of the information related to audit reports of electoral trusts and details of contributions received by them and distributed to political parties.
“This involves the information about the electoral trustees, who are third parties in this case and the procedure under section 11 should have been followed,” the Bench said. Noting that before transparency rules governing contributions to electoral trusts were formulated by the central government, six electoral trusts had donated a total of Rs 105 crore to national parties between 2004-05 and 2011-12. The Bench pointed out that since the rules are not retrospective, these six electoral trusts are not required to follow transparency rules and declare their donor details. “Thus details of donors to these six electoral trusts remain unknown, thereby leading to speculation on whether donations to these trusts were only means of getting tax exemptions or a way to convert black money stashed in tax havens to white money in India, if that is the case, the question is why the details of donors to these electoral trusts, which were formed before the CBDT rules came into existence, should also be not disclosed,” it said.
The information sought by the appellant is already available with the public authority as these trusts are required by law to maintain a list of their donors, the Bench said. The Commission said perusal of RTI request reveals that no personal information was sought. “The appellant did not ask Income Tax returns of any person. How can the addresses of electoral trusts and other charitable trusts…their audit reports as per IT Act, details of contributions received by those trusts and distributed to political parties come under the clause of Section 8(1)(j)(personal information) and 8(1)(e)(fiduciary) of the RTI Act?,” it said.
The transparency panel said the Central Public Information Officer of the I-T Department did not explain or justify the denial. The Bench said the expression “personal information” applies to “individuals” and not “bodies/institutions” or entities working for public good. “There is a distinction to be drawn between having a legal personality and owning information in a private personal capacity. An institution which is accountable to the public and has a public function to performa in a transparent manner cannot avail the benefit under Section 8(1)(j),” it said.
Rejecting the Income Tax Department’s argument of fiduciary capacity, it said the taxman is similarly placed like RBI or CBSE to whom electoral trusts have to submit the returns as required by the statute and respondent authority cannot claim any exemption under this category. “When electoral trusts submitted their income details to the Income Tax Department in compliance with statutory requirement, it would not create any fiduciary relationship,” it said.
The Commission said if the CPIO is really considered that it was information of third parties, he should have consulted the third party, which might have pleaded it was a personal information. “Three CPIOs erred in assuming that information sought was private or personal… and defied the procedure prescribed by the RTI Act to deny in a hurry,” it said.
The Bench said electoral trusts are in character of charitable trust and any such institution should not have “secrets” and they should be open to public for all purposes including its finances as held by CIC. Moreover, the electoral trusts are public trusts and not private trusts, it said. “Similarly, the I-T Department holds the information furnished by the electoral trusts for the benefit of democracy and people at large and disclosure of such information will serve the benefit of those beneficiaries and hence it should be disclosed,” the Bench held.