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Your income tax details not out of bounds
January, 11th 2010

Want to know how much income tax your neighbour pays? Just file an RTI. In a ruling that is bound to have ramifications, specially on big tax-payers , and in a move aimed at curbing tax evasion, the Central Information Commission has ruled that seeking information on income tax is not invasion of privacy.

Ruling out that disclosure of information would lead to unwarranted invasion of the privacy of the individual , CIC Shailesh Gandhi observed: The concept of privacy is a cultural notion, related to social norms, and different societies would look at these differently.

Therefore, referring to laws of other countries to define privacy cannot be considered a valid exercise to constrain the Citizens fundamental Right to Information in India.

The CIC in his order said: Parliament has not codified the right to privacy so far, hence, in balancing the Right to Information of Citizens and the individuals Right to Privacy, the Citizens Right to Information would be given greater weightage.

While agreeing that the state has no right to invade the privacy of an individual , the CIC made it clear that there are some extraordinary situations where the state may be allowed to invade the privacy of a citizen. Routine obtaining of information from citizens by the state will not be an intrusion on privacy.

The CICs order came on an application filed by Rakesh Kumar Gupta of Delhi seeking all records available with the IT department including assessment records of all levels with regard to Escorts Limited including Escorts Heart Institute and Research Centre (Chandigarh and Delhi).

The CIC said as per Section 8 (1) (b) of the Act: There shall be no obligation to give any citizen, information which has been expressly forbidden to be published by any court of law or tribunal or the disclosure of which may constitute contempt of court.

But since no evidence has been shown that the disclosure of the exemption has been expressly forbidden by any court of law or tribunal, there appears to be no ground for claiming exemption under Section 8 (1)( b).

On arguments that revealing the information related to Escorts chief Dr Naresh Trehan is personal as it contains personal financial information of the assessee, including various assets , income and expenditure, and the disclosure of this information has no relationship with any public activity or interest.... the CIC observed: Various public authorities in performing their functions routinely ask for personal information from citizens and this is clearly a public activity.

When a person applies for a job, or gives information about himself as an employee , or asks for a permission, licence or authorization, all these are public activities. Also, when a citizen provides information in discharge of a statutory obligation, this too is a public activity.

If the appellant 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 an unwarranted invasion of privacy of the assessee.

Hence the arguments raised by Dr Trehan that the RTI application is motivated by ill-will and malice, with the motive to harass and blackmail the assessee are unfounded because, as stated above, a public interest is served if tax evasion is curbed.

With this, the CIC has directed the PIO to provide the inspection of the records and also the other information sought by the appellant before January 15, 2009.

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