23 January 2009

Speaking transparency to power - SEBI and RTI

Recall my previous posts on my Right to Information application to the securities regulator, SEBI, to disclose their Board agenda notes and minutes of the Board meetings. The information was denied, as not being available in the form sought. Here is my appeal which is self explanatory:

"Mr. M S Sahoo
SEBI Appellate Authority – RTI
SEBI Bhavan
C4A, G Block
Bandra Kurla Complex
Mumbai 400051

23 January 2009

Dear Sir,

1. I am in receipt of a letter dated 2nd January 2009 in response to my RTI application dated 2nd December 2008. The letter states “The information sought by you is not available in the format as required by you”. A copy of the correspondence is attached as “Annexure A colly”.

2. My request for information was for the following in soft copy:
“The Board Agenda items of SEBI from May 2008 to early December 2008.
The final minutes of the SEBI Board meetings from May 2008 to early December 2008. Where final minutes are not available, the current draft may be sent.”

3. The reply given by the CPIO is not acceptable to me, because it seeks to misrepresent the factual position and seeks to deny easily available information without any stated reasons. I therefore seek to appeal against this ruling on the following grounds.

A. The information is not furnished within the 30 days period allowed to the CPIO under S. 7(1). The period runs from the time of seeking of information not from the time of the payment of the fees. However, I waive my rights under this provision as there is a delay of only one day.

B. Section 7(9) of the RTI Act specifically states that:
“(9) An information shall ordinarily be provided in the form in which it is sought unless it would disproportionately divert the resources of the public authority or would be detrimental to the safety or preservation of the record in question.”

No assertion has been made about ‘disproportionate diversion of resources’ in the letter denying me the information in the form sought. A bald denial of information in the form sought without any rationale goes contrary to the explicit mandate of the parliament reflected in the Act.

C. Further, this denial is an attempt to block sharing of information by a regulator, whose chief task is to introduce disclosure in the corporate field. This is a wholly inappropriate response even de hors the plain terms of the law and it deviates from the moral authority of the regulator to demand the highest standards from others while secreting its own information without reason or rationale.

D. It is clear that the information is available in soft copy in the computers of the persons who have drafted the agenda items and the minutes of the Board meeting. This would be true unless, the Board has begun typing agenda items on manual typewriters in the recent past. Even if that were true, the CPIO will need to assert that converting the manual typewritten material cannot be converted to soft copies as it would disproportionately divert resources. No such assertion is made.

E. On 31st December 2008, I received a reply from the CPIO’s office stating that “We are in the process of collecting information which will be furnished as soon as it is collected”. It is not clear what happened to this 29 days of information collection, where it is specifically stated that the information is being collected.

F. The obvious mis-statement of the assertion that the information is not available in soft copy is directly belied by the fact that 2 days after my RTI application, the Board put out its December board minutes on its website in the very same format sought by me i.e. soft copy. See the agenda notes and minutes of the same on SEBI’s website: http://www.sebi.gov.in/boardmeetings/120bmho.html If this information was not available in soft format, how was it put up?

G. I would also like to compare this secretive behaviour of the Indian regulator with the American position where the SEC's commission meetings are usually open - meaning that anyone can access the meetings including the press and the citizens and it is also webcast (available in archival form for old meetings). A brief agenda is published in advance as well. Some meetings are 'closed' because of investigation action etc which needs to be taken - here too, all SEC employees are allowed to sit through the meeting.

H. By contrast, India's SEBI gives no access to agenda papers to anyone except for the Executive Directors and members of the Board. The meetings are held behind closed doors by members of the Board. These are policy based agendas rather than investigation based - there is therefore nothing sensitive in the agenda or the discussions. In fact specific market data and specific investigation data is never disclosed to the Board, thus there is no need for any closed door meetings at all (this is because of the nature of SEBI which has both non whole time and whole time members, a dichotomy which does not exist with the SEC).

I. To get a webcast of the meeting and make them open to everyone would require introspection by the Board and a will to create transparency in its own functioning. Only then can SEBI rightly claim the moral high ground for enforcing transparency in publicly listed companies. This last point made is a suggestion for SEBI and does not form part of the appeal.

4. I therefore request you to reverse the unsustainable ruling of the CPIO and uphold the highest levels of transparency by the regulator. I also ask you to bring in transparency beyond the realm of this appeal, by introduction of webcasting of Board meetings. I am certain, citizens of the country would be happy to learn about the workings of the regulator and it could be an opportunity for the regulator to take the country’s citizens with them rather than seeing them as a threat.

I waive my right to appear in person to present the appeal.


Sandeep Parekh

Copy: Correspondence between office of CPIO and myself.

16H Faculty Wing
Indian Institute of Management
Ahmedabad 380015

+91 79 66324953

You can see my previous postings on the subject 27 July 08 post, 4th December and 15th December.

1 comment:

sdd said...

U hv 2 b naive to believe that transparency in SEBI working will improve. Inspite of decision taken on 4th Dec to make agenda and decisions of board meetings public, till date decisions of the 120th meeting on d 4th DEc hv not been put on d site. Agenda of 121st meeting on 21st Jan is also no where to be seen.