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Why RTI Act is an irritant for banks
Tamal Bandyopadhyay
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November 17, 2005

Did the chairman's wife accompany him during his last trip to Tirupati where the bank's board met? If yes, did she go on her own or at office expense?

After the split between the Ambani brothers, has the bank revised the interest rates for the two Ambani outfits? Could you also tell us about the bank's exposure to the two groups?

How many air-conditioners does the CMD have at his residence? What is his monthly electricity bill?

This is a sample of questions that the public sector banking industry has been answering ever since the Right to Information (RTI) Act 2005, has come into force.

The chief information officer of each bank (who is a general manager in charge of some other portfolio) normally consults the CMD of the bank before preparing a crystal-clear or sufficiently evasive answer (depending upon the nature of the question).

Some of the questions are even ignored after due consultation with the legal department of the bank.

The RTI is the latest irritant that the country's public sector banks have to deal with, apart from the queries related to the scrutiny of the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) and Chief Vigilance Commissioner (CVC), among others.

All 27 bank headquarters (19 nationalised banks, and the State Bank of India [Get Quote] and its seven associate banks) have to deal with, for instance, regular visits by over a dozen Parliamentary committees through the year, and a host of questions that any people's representative is entitled to ask on any bank on the floor of Parliament.

Small wonder then that most of the bank chiefs spend the bulk of their time finding ways to satisfy the information appetite of curious individuals and agencies. In the UK, their version of the RTI does not include commercial organisations, but that has not been done in India.

It's not as if banks don't furnish information in the normal course. As commercial entities, they are answerable to their shareholders at the AGMs and the listed ones come out with information every quarter, and any business decision that has an impact on their incomes is disclosed to the stock exchanges as part of the listing agreement.

Apart from the time that senior PSU bankers will have to devote to satisfying the information needs of the RTI, there is a danger that competitors can use the Act to get all manner of information from the bank.

The Indian Banks' Association (IBA) has told its member banks that corporations have no right to seek information under the Right to Information Act. Its argument is that the right to information is derived from the freedom of speech and expression that is guaranteed by Article 19 (1)(a) of the Constitution of India and these rights are confined to natural persons who are citizens.

Since a corporation is not a citizen, it does not have the right to information. But there is nothing to prevent a competitor from seeking information through its shareholders or employees who are citizens of the country.

PSU bankers are trying to see whether they can take refuge in over a dozen provisions in various laws relating to secrecy of customers' affairs. However, Section 22 of the RTI Act has made it abundantly clear that provisions of the Act will be operative "notwithstanding anything contained in any other law" in force. In other words, it supersedes all other laws that offer banks a protective shield against public scrutiny. One option being looked at is whether the constitutional provision on fundamental rights offer any protection.

The RTI Act can override all existing laws but it cannot violate the right to privacy which is a fundamental right under chapter II of Indian Constitution, says M R Umarji, former Reserve Bank of India executive director and now legal advisor to the Indian Banks' Association -- in other words, a borrower/depositor expects the bank to maintain a veil over his transactions.

All these arguments are, however, subject to interpretation, and clarity will emerge only after an individual or a corporation decides to move court following a bank's refusal to part with information. The solution to the problem is keeping all commercial organisations including public sector banks out of the ambit of the RTI Act.

If that's not possible, the alternative is bringing down the government's stake in PSU banks to below 50 per cent. That will automatically exclude them from the Act's purview.

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