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All IT returns open to public scrutiny

Vidya Subrahmaniam

New Delhi: Are income-tax returns filed by individual citizens open to public scrutiny under the Right to Information? Yes, says the Central Information Commission.

In a controversial December 14 ruling with far-reaching implications, the CIC held that individual assessees could not invoke privacy concerns to prevent an unrelated “third party” from inspecting returns filed with the Income-Tax Department. Sources in the Commission said the ruling must be seen as a trendsetter that could eventually lead to the tax returns of all citizens being put up on the department’s website.

The ruling by Information Commissioner Shailesh Gandhi came on a specific application filed under the RTI Act, 2005. Rakesh Kumar Gupta had applied to the Commissioner of Income Tax in Delhi seeking to inspect the IT returns filed by various branches of the Escorts Heart Institute as well as by a heart surgeon, previously in the hospital’s employ. The applicant said an earlier RTI application filed by him revealed tax evasion by those named in his current application, and that this was confirmed by the IT Commissioner.

Mr. Gupta went in appeal to the CIC after his application was rejected successively by the Public Information Officer and two appellate authorities attached to the IT Commissioner. The hospital and the surgeon strongly objected to the application, arguing that the information sought included certain personal documents and details which were part of the Income-Tax proceedings and whose disclosure could endanger their safety. They also invoked various sub-sections of Section 8(1) of the RTI Act, which sets the grounds on which information might be denied. These include sovereignty and security, commercial confidence, fiduciary relationship, and privacy of the individual.

Mr. Gandhi rejected the grounds cited by them, arguing that the claim to privacy was not a universal right applicable to all humans in all circumstances. The Right to Information had been codified, and in a conflict between privacy claims and the Right to Information, the latter must prevail. He held that filing tax returns was a statutory obligation and must be treated as a public activity open to scrutiny. As a tax assessee had already provided information to the state as part of his or her legal duties, its disclosure to “another person cannot be construed as an unwarranted invasion of privacy of the individual.”

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