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May 21, 2024

SBI’s Persistent Refusal to Disclose Electoral Bond SOPs Sparks Controversy

The State Bank of India (SBI) has once again denied disclosing the standard operating procedures (SOPs) related to the sale and redemption of electoral bonds, despite an appeal under the Right to Information Act (RTI). The Times of India reports that SBI justified its refusal by citing “commercial confidence” and asserting that the SOPs are the bank’s “intellectual property.”

This ongoing refusal came in response to an RTI application filed by transparency advocate Anjali Bhardwaj on March 4, seeking access to SOPs issued by SBI since April 2017. After SBI’s initial rejection on March 30, Bhardwaj escalated the issue to the bank’s first appellate authority (FAA). However, the FAA’s response on May 17 maintained the bank’s stance, prompting Bhardwaj to plan a further appeal to the Central Information Commission (CIC).

In its May 17 order, the FAA reiterated, “The information sought is held by the bank in its commercial confidence and hence cannot be provided. Further, the internal guidelines are strictly meant for the dealing staff and the information is also intellectual property of the bank, hence rightly denied under Section 8(1)(d) of the RTI Act.” This section of the RTI Act protects information, including commercial confidence and intellectual property, from disclosure if it would harm the competitive position of a third party, unless public interest demands otherwise.

Bhardwaj’s request for the SOPs was driven by concerns over the lack of transparency in SBI’s handling of electoral bond transactions. She pointed out potential issues with the bank’s recording of unique identifiers for both purchasers and redeemers of the bonds, raising fears about possible tracking and misuse of data. “Even after the Supreme Court struck down the electoral bond scheme as unconstitutional and ordered disclosure of all details of EBs, SBI continues to withhold crucial information,” Bhardwaj told The Times of India.

Critically, Bhardwaj argued that the FAA failed to explain how releasing the SOPs would harm the competitive position of a third party. She also noted that the FAA did not identify who this third party might be. Moreover, the FAA did not address the public interest aspect, simply labeling the documents as internal guidelines without considering the broader implications for transparency and accountability.

Bhardwaj’s concerns highlight a significant issue in the management and oversight of electoral bonds in India. The refusal to disclose SOPs fuels suspicions about the opacity of the electoral bond scheme, which has been criticized for its potential to facilitate undisclosed political funding. The Supreme Court’s ruling against the scheme underscored the need for transparency, yet SBI’s persistent refusal to share relevant information appears to contradict this judicial directive.

The ongoing dispute underscores the tension between institutional confidentiality and the public’s right to information, especially in matters of political financing. As Bhardwaj prepares to take her case to the CIC, the outcome may set a precedent for how financial institutions manage and disclose information that is crucial for public accountability.

In conclusion, SBI’s steadfast refusal to disclose the SOPs for electoral bonds underlines a broader debate about transparency in India’s financial and political systems. The case highlights the challenges faced by transparency advocates in ensuring that institutions comply with RTI mandates and judicial rulings, balancing commercial interests with the imperative of public interest.

Jhumpa Lahiri

Jhumpa Lahiri

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