New Delhi: The State Bank of India, authorised by the Centre to issue electoral bonds, has once again refused to reveal information under the Right to Information Act on large donors who purchased electoral bonds worth over Rs 1 crore.

This refusal comes from the the country’s largest nationalised commercial bank despite the fact that the Election Commission of India and the Reserve Bank of India have both termed anonymous funding via electoral bonds a “retrograde step” for transparency,

Centre due to start sale of electoral bonds again from January 13

It was purportedly to bring transparency in donations to political parties that the government came up with electoral bonds (EBs) in February 2017 and notified them in January 2018.

Incidentally, an appeal challenging the electoral bond scheme was filed in the Supreme Court in 2017 and it is due to come up before the apex court soon. Meanwhile, the Centre has announced its decision to open the 13th window for sale and encashment of electoral bonds from January 13.

Queries filed under the RTI Act by activists Anjali Bhardwaj and Amrita Johri of National Campaign for People’s Right to Information have revealed that the public sector bank still believes in withholding information on crucial aspects of political funding.

Bhardwaj said, “In November 2019, information accessed under the RTI Act had revealed how the government pushed through the anonymous Electoral Bonds Scheme, ignoring warnings of the Election Commission of India and RBI.”

She said both the EC and RBBI had termed anonymous funding via electoral bonds “a retrograde step” for transparency and highlighted that they would lead to money laundering and more black money in the system.

Questions posed to 29 SBI branches that sold electoral bonds

Still, when in December 2019, applications under the RTI Act were filed seeking information from all 29 branches of the State Bank of India, which are authorised to sell electoral bonds, a resistance to reveal information was visible.

There were four queries in all:

  1. Total number of electoral bonds sold since January 2, 2018.
  2. Total value of electoral bonds sold since January 2, 2018.
  3. Total number of electoral bonds sold in the denomination of Rs 1 crore since January 2, 2018.
  4. Names of all persons who have purchased electoral bonds in the denomination of Rs 1 crore since January 2, 2018.

In response to these questions, 23 branches replied. It was revealed that a total of 11,770 electoral bonds worth Rs 5,936.7 crore were sold at these branches.

92% bonds of Rs 1 crore denomination

“Of the 11,770 bonds, 5,463 were of the denomination of Rs 1 crore which means that 92% of the amount given through bonds was in the denomination of Rs 1 crore. For six branches – Lucknow, Patna, Ranchi, Vishakhapatnam, Chennai and Thiruvananthapuram, no information has been received till date,” said Bhardwaj.

What surprised the RTI activists was the reluctance of all the branches to reveal the names of the purchasers of the bonds of Rs 1 crore. The response was a standard sentence: “The information sought by the applicant cannot be disclosed as it is in fiduciary capacity, disclosure of which is exempted under 8(1)(e) and 8(1)(j) of RTI Act, 2005.”

‘A violation of people’s right to know’

Reacting to this, Bhardwaj said, “This is a violation of peoples’ right to know. The public authority has failed to weigh the issue of larger public interest, which is mandatorily required in each case in which information is denied under section 8 of the RTI Act.”

She said information accessed under the RTI Act shows that electoral bonds worth Rs 1,880 crore were bought from the Mumbai branch followed by Rs 1,440 from Kolkata branch and Rs 919 crore from the New Delhi branch.

Later drafts of EB scheme dropped provision on withholding information

Bhardwaj also pointed out that while initial drafts of the electoral bonds scheme specifically mentioned that details of EB holders would be kept out of purview of RTI, in later drafts this provision was dropped.

In this regard, she noted that file noting of June 22, 2017 in the matter noted under point 3f on page 6 that “the information regarding the purchaser shall be kept secret by the issuer bank and will not be shared in public domain. The details of the holders of electoral bonds shall also be kept out of the purview of RTI”.

Likewise, the notings of June 24, 2017 and June 30, 2017 stated that “the information regarding the purchaser and payee shall be kept secret by the issuer bank. These details would also be beyond the purview of RTI”.

However, in the subsequent drafts of the EB scheme, she said, there was no mention of excluding the scheme from the purview of RTI.

Centre never wanted information on donors to be revealed

Also, the Supreme Court had in April 2019 stated in its interim order that there are issues pertaining to electoral bonds “which have a tremendous bearing on the sanctity of the electoral process in the country”.

In an article, founder of Association for Democratic Reforms, Jagdeep S. Chhokar, had noted how several provisions were made by the government while introducing the electoral bonds scheme to make it impossible for political parties to provide information about the donors.

A case in point, he had noted was para 7(4) of the notification issued by the ministry of finance on January 02, 2018 which said: “The information furnished by the buyer shall be treated confidential by the authorised bank and shall not be disclosed to any authority for any purposes, except when demanded by a competent court or upon registration of criminal case by any law enforcement agency.”

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