In a revelation to an RTI response, it has come to light that the PMO had advised Air India not to share the information relating to bills of Prime Minister’s overseas trips to an RTI applicant seeking to know only the dates on which the bills were raised and sent to the Centre for each foreign visits undertaken by the PM since his Japan trip in November, 2016 for which Air India provided chartered flights.
The response sent by Air India to Commodore Lokesh K Batra (Retd) reveals that the PMO had advised Air India way back in year 2016 not to disclose information relating to the PM’s flight to such RTI queries.
The Air India has now relied on the 2016 letter by the PMO in response to Commodore Batra’s latest RTI application sent to it early this month seeking information on dates of the bills/ invoices.
“Records pertaining to PM’s flight have certain information which may have security implications and are, hence, exempted from disclosure under clause (g) of section 8 (1) of the RTI Act, 2005. As such, the Air India is advised not to disclose information relating to PM’s flights to such RTI queries,” said the PMO’s December 26, 2016 letter to Air India.
Section 8(1)(g) of the RTI Act exempts from disclosure of any information, the “disclosure of which would endanger the life or physical safety of any person or identify the source of information or assistance given in confidence for law enforcement or security purposes”.
Batra then wrote back to Air India on March 20 saying it cannot deny information influenced by external pressures and marked a copy of his mail to the PMO saying he would highlight the lapse before the CIC.
Batra wonders how the sharing the dates of the invoices poses risk to PM’s security that too when the trips have already been undertaken.
To begin with, though Batra had started highlighting issue of huge delays in clearing of Air India bills raised on PM’s foreign visits in 2015, due to incomplete information being shared with him as well as on PMIndia website under “proactive disclosure under Section 4 (1) (b) of the RTI Act”, Batra was forced to write to Air India in February 2018.
In his RTI application, all that he had sought was, “only the dates of invoices/ bills raised and dates of forwarding each bill to the Ministry of Civil Aviation/ Ministry of External Affairs for each foreign visits undertaken by the Prime Minister for the period starting PM’s visit to Japan in November, 2016 onwards for which AirIndia provided Chartered flights”.
The RTI application was sent by him to the northern, southern and western region also.
The Mumbai office (western region) wrote back on March 6, 2018, with the PMO’s December 26, 2016 advice attached to its e-mail wherein it had been asked not to share the information sought by Batra.
Batra then wrote back to Air India on March 20 saying, “I like to emphasise that there is no provision in the Act to deny information without giving reasons as per section 7(1) of the Act or quoting CIC Orders or Court Orders for denial of Information...Incidentally, the information requested by me is being provided by even PMO, MoCA and MEA consequent to CIC Orders.”
The mail was also marked to PMO wherein Batra said he would bring to CIC’s attention this lapse of PMO directing Air India to withhold information.
“I humbly request Director (RTI), PMO for the perusal of attached AI response quoting PMO directions to Air India to deny information. Kindly take up this serious lapse at an appropriate level in PMO. Difficult to comprehend, how PMO could issue such instructions in violation of the RTI Act. I will be reporting this lapse to CIC too,” he said in his mail.
On Wednesday, he sent a reminder to Air India asking it to make its final response.
Meanwhile, it is to be noted that due to Commodore Batra’s sustained efforts, the PMIndia website now has details of all bills of Modi’s foreign travels processed barring the latest three to Philippines, Switzerland, Jordan, Palestine, UAE and Oman.
Till yesterday, many entries only showed that the bills were under process.
Batra said he started digging out information about the pending Air India bills in lieu of PM’s foreign trips on chartered flights since Air India was being bailed out by huge tax-payers’ money and the politicians had been crying foul over the losses it was making.
Batra said the government cannot blame the airlines for making losses when it itself is not paying the whopping bills.
When he had started his legal battle on the issue in year 2015, the PMIndia website only had details of expenses incurred on Narendra Modi’s first foreign trip to Bhutan after assuming office and the bills of the predecessor were also pending.
Commodore Batra had filed RTI application on June 28, 2016, seeking details of bills, invoices as received in the MEA with reference to foreign visits undertaken by former and present Prime Ministers of India for the financial years 2013-14, 2014-15 and 2016-17.
It is to be noted that the CIC had in February directed the MEA to make the information public.
The MEA had back then pleaded exemption saying the information is scattered across various files and would involve diverting officials to collate information. The CIC had dismissed the argument.
Batra maintains that “Air India is a cash-strapped airline that does not make money. Therefore, delay in settling these bills would also include sizeable interest figure(s), which needs to be paid at the expense of tax payers’ money. The Civil Aviation Minister had opined in June, 2016 that Air India’s books are bad and that in this practical regime, to harmonize the conflicting interest(s), the sought for information should be disclosed to the masses”.