India’s private sector companies have to go public with information.
M.M. Ansari, information commissioner at the Central Information Commission that oversees the implementation of the Right to Information (RTI) Act, 2005, told Mint that as long as these companies reported to a regulator or a government department, they were within the purview of the sunshine law.
According to the commission, companies will not have to appoint an information officer to deal with right-to-information demands the way government entities do. Applicants will route their requests through the relevant agency.
Thus, information on telecom companies such as Bharti Airtel, the largest mobile telephony firm, can be accessed through the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India; that on banks through the Reserve Bank of India; and on brokerages and foreign investors active in stock markets from the Securities and Exchange Board of India.
Though rules for doing business have been simplified since 1991, most companies that operate in the country have extensive dealings with various arms of the government. Companies, privately, closely or publicly held, have to file their financial statements with the Registrar of Companies.
“Applicants have every right to seek information on a private company even though it is in the private sector, if it reports to a government body,” Ansari says, citing sections of the Act that made this possible.
Only applications that served public interest would be dealt with, not those that sought to erode a company’s competitive position, he adds. The message: you can ask a cola company for details on how much water it used and where the water came from, but not the formula of its fizzy drink. If there is any difference of opinion on what constitutes public interest and what doesn’t, the commission will intercede and decide.
It is already hearing one such case where an individual used the information act to ask the RBI for details of a loan issued by the Bank of Punjab, since acquired by Centurion Bank. The central bank refused to give out the information saying that it was not available, and that Bank of Punjab, a private-sector bank, did not fall under the purview of the act. The commission heard the case in December and will issue its order soon.
“The act is under-utilized when it comes to gathering information on the private sector, but it does have a provision for seeking information on the corporate sector,” said Arvind Kejriwal, one of the champions of the sunshine legislation, and a winner of the Magsaysay award. He said that Parivartan, a non governmental organization that he runs would wait till the commission passed an order in favour of an applicant and against a private-sector company and start a campaign to make people aware that private companies aren’t all that private anymore.