Question And Answer
Subject: Am I entitled to demand the assessment records of third parties under RTI?
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Querist: James Bond
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Date: April 21, 2021
Query asked by James Bond

I am interested in seeing the assessment records of certain third parties. Can I call for the same under the Right to Information Act?

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Provisions of the RTI Act:

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. There are exceptions built into section 8 of the RTI Act. S. 8(1) (b) exempts the disclosure of information which has been expressly forbidden by any court of law or tribunal. S 8(1) (d) exempts the disclosure of information which would harm the competitive position of a third party. S. 8(1) (e) exempts disclosure of information held in fiduciary relationship. S. 8(1) (h) exempts disclosure of information which would impede the process of investigation. S. 8(1) (j) exempts disclosure of 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.

Judgements on the issue:

This issue was considered in detail by the Chief Information Commissioner in Rakesh Kumar Gupta vs. PIO. In that case, the Applicant 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 CIC upheld the right of the Applicant to call for the information after considering whether any of the exemptions of section 8 would apply. The CIC held that 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 did not apply to corporate entities and can only be claimed by natural persons and not by corporate entities. It held that there was a difference between having a legal personality and owning ‘personal information’. Personal information is information relating to a natural person, not a legal person.

The CIC also held that the argument that the disclosure of the information would lead to unwarranted invasion of the privacy of the individual did 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. It was held that 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, it held that 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.

The CIC further held that the Applicant, as informer, was assisting the Department by bringing instances of tax evasion to its notice, and if he was using information that he has received through RTI Applications for this purpose, it could not be considered to be misuse of information in any way, nor could it be considered to be an unwarranted invasion of privacy of the assessee. It was observed that even if the exemption clauses of s. 8 (1) is applicable it certainly served a larger public interest, if tax evasion is curbed.

The argument that the Applicant was likely to misuse the information and could endanger the life and property of the assessee was held to be a mere apprehension and could not be accepted as it would defeat the objective of the RTI Act.

Conclusion:

The ruling of the CIC has far reaching implications because the income-tax records of anybody and everybody can be made public. The ruling does not appear to be correct. One should not be surprised if the ruling gets reversed by the High Court or superceded by a statutory amendment.



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