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Naresh Trehan vs. Rakesh Kumar Gupta (Delhi High Court)
December, 04th 2014

RTI Act: Income-tax returns are confidential and cannot be disclosed except where disclosure is in public interest and outweighs possible harm to the assessee

(i) Undoubtedly, the income tax returns and information provided to Income Tax Authorities by assessees is confidential and not required to be placed in public domain. Given the nature of the income tax returns and the information necessary to support the same, it would be exempt under Section 8(1)(j) of the Act in respect of individual and unincorporated assessees. The information as disclosed in the income tax returns would qualify as personal information with regard to several private companies which are, essentially, alter egos of their promoters. However, in cases of widely held companies most information relating to their income and expenditure would be in public domain and the confidential information would be exempt from disclosure under Section 8(1)(d) of the Act. Further, even in cases of corporate entities, the income tax returns and other disclosure made to authorities would also include transactions with other parties and those parties can also claim the exception under Section 8(1) of the Act.

One has to also bear in mind that an authority may not have any obligation to provide any information other than in the form in which it is available and the information provided by an assessee may not have been edited to remove references to other persons. Keeping all the aforesaid considerations in view, the parliament has enacted Section 138 of the Income Tax Act, 1961 to provide for disclosure only where it is necessary in public interest. Similar provisions are enacted under the Act and clauses (d), (e) and (j) of Section 8(1) of the Act that specify that information exempt from disclosure under those clauses, could be disclosed in larger public interest. Section 8(2) of the Act also provides for a non obstante clause which permits disclosure of information in larger public interest.

(ii) In the above context where the nature of income tax returns and other information provided for assessment of income is confidential and its disclosure is protected under the Income Tax Act, 1961 it is not necessary to read any inconsistency between the Act and Income Tax Act, 1961. And, information furnished by an assesse can be disclosed only where it is necessary to do in public interest and where such interest outweighs in importance, any possible harm or injury to the assesse or any other third party. However, information furnished by corporate assessees that neither relates to another party nor is exempt under Section 8(1)(d) of the Act, can be disclosed.

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