February 1, 2021 7:20:09 pm
The Gujarat High Court has held that “it is very essential” to keep out applicants and persons who approach authorities concerned for information under the Right to Information Act unless “bona fide reasons” are established “with relevant material and not just empty and hollow words”.
A division bench of the high court made the observation on January 27 while adjudging a matter concerning a land dispute between two private parties, wherein one had sought information against the other regarding income tax returns, business income and other such details.
In 2014, petitioner Vinubhai Patel had approached the HC alleging a “fraud played” on revenue authorities of the state government by other private parties in relation to a plot of land concerning Patel and the respondent private parties. The petitioner had thereby sought information from the Income Tax department on the business income and income tax returns of the respondent private parties. The petitioner stated it was in the larger public interest to disclose the said “information” to the petitioner notwithstanding Section 8(1)(j) of the RTI Act.
In 2016, a single-judge bench of the Gujarat HC, however, had dismissed the petition primarily on the ground that the information sought did not qualify as one serving a larger public interest and, moreover, the details sought also constituted as personal information otherwise.
Subsequently, Patel had appealed against the decision before a division bench. On January 27, the division bench upheld the single-judge bench’s judgment.
A bench of Justices Vineet Kothari and Gita Gopi observed, “In order to check the abuse and misuse of the purpose and procedure enacted in the RTI Act, it is very essential to keep out the applicants and persons who approach the authorities concerned except for bona fide reasons. The existence of bona fide reasons is a question of fact, which has to be established by the applicant with relevant material and not just empty and hollow words to be used. In the background of the case, which we have in hand, we see only the private interest of the applicant – petitioner and not even a semblance of public interest in the same.”
“The private interest of the applicant may also have a share of a public interest in it, but such applications, which are primarily to subserve the private interest of the applicants, cannot be pressed to yield ‘information’ from the public authorities or revenue departments, like the Income Tax department, even ‘personal information’ with regard to third parties or assessees under the Income Tax Act. The Income Tax Act itself provides for a complete mechanism to investigate into the affairs of an assessee on the basis of information, evidence and material on record of the Income Tax department and such ‘information’ cannot be loosely parted with in favour of the applicant or third parties under the garb of wider scope under the provisions of the RTI Act,” the bench observed.
The bench also took into account that Income Tax Act section 138, which deals with the disclosure of information with respect to assessees, also prohibits disclosure of such information available with the Income Tax department to any third party unless a larger public interest is established by the RTI applicant.
“The sanctity of the Income Tax assessment, filing of returns, investigation and inquiry under the Act would be thrown open to third parties, if such ‘information’ was to be disclosed to third parties casually or carelessly. On the other hand, the Act provides for keeping such information guarded in confidence with the authorities,” the bench observed.
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