Assessment records of third parties can be demanded under RTI
The Applicant, an informer of the department, filed a RTI application seeking inspection & copies of all records available with the income tax department including assessment orders of Escorts Ltd, Dr. Naresh Trehan and connected parties. The application was rejected by the PIO on the ground that there was no overriding public interest in disclosing the information relating to third parties and the disclosure would lead to an invasion of privacy of the assessees. On appeal by the applicant, HELD allowing the appeal:
(i) U/s 3 of the RTI Act information as defined u/s 2(f) which is not exempt from disclosure u/s 8(1) or 9 and is held by a public authority has to be disclosed. As the information sought is information as defined u/s 2(f) and is held by the Income Tax department which is a Public authority, the limited issue is whether the exemption clauses applies:
(ii) S. 8(1) (b) which exempts the disclosure of information which has been expressly forbidden by any court of law or tribunal does not apply as there is no such order.
(iii) S 8(1) (d) which exempts the disclosure of information which would harm the competitive position of a third party does not apply because the information sought is not of commercial confidence and its disclosure does not harm competitive interest.
(iv) S. 8(1) (e) which exempts disclosure of information held in fiduciary relationship does not apply because the returns are filed by the assessees under a statutory requirement and not pursuant to a fiduciary relationship with the income-tax department.
(v) S. 8(1) (h) which exempts disclosure of information which would impede the process of investigation does not apply because the mere fact that an investigation is underway and assessments are not finalized is not a sufficient ground in the absence of anything to show that the investigation would be impeded.
(vi) S. 8(1) (j) which exempts disclosure information which relates to personal information the disclosure of which has no relationship to any public activity or interest, or which would cause unwarranted invasion of the privacy of the individual does not apply to corporate entities and can only be claimed by natural persons and not by corporate entities. There is a difference between having a legal personality and owning ‘personal information’. Personal information is information relating to a natural person, not a legal person.
(vii) As regards the individual about whom information is sought (Dr. Naresh Trehan), though the information is “personal”, it does not satisfy the condition of “not having been disclosed to the public authority as part of a public activity” because information given in discharge of a statutory obligation, is a public activity and therefore, information provided by an assessee to the Department for purposes of income tax assessment is information disclosed in relation to a public activity and not eligible for exemption.
(viii) The argument that the disclosure of the information would lead to unwarranted invasion of the privacy of the individual also does not apply for two reasons. Firstly, the information has been provided by the assessee to meet his legal obligations and the disclosure of the same to another person cannot be construed as being an unwarranted invasion of the privacy of the individual. The Citizen’s right to Information should be given greater primacy than privacy. Information provided by individuals in fulfillment of statutory requirements is not covered by the exemption u/s 8 (1) (j). Secondly, as there has been large evasion of taxes by the group, if citizens monitor assessments through RTI, it could be a major gain for public revenue and perhaps a good check on corrupt officials.
(ix) The Appellant, as informer, is assisting the Department by bringing instances of tax evasion to its notice, and if he is using information that he has received through RTI Applications for this purpose, it cannot be considered to be misuse of information in any way, nor can it be considered to be an unwarranted invasion of privacy of the assessee. And even if the exemption clauses of s. 8 (1) is applicable it certainly serves a larger public interest, if tax evasion is curbed.
(x) The contention that the Appellant is likely to misuse the information and could endanger the life and property of the assessee is a mere apprehension and cannot be accepted as it would defeat the objective of the RTI Act.
(xi) Accordingly, the PIO was directed to provide inspection of the records and the other information sought by the appellant.