‘It was not about transparency at all’: Lokesh Batra

Published : Apr 04, 2024 11:00 IST - 6 MINS READ

Lokesh Batra.

Lokesh Batra. | Photo Credit: ANI

The transparency rights activist says the information from his RTIs shed light on the opaque workings of the electoral bonds scheme.

A retired commodore, Lokesh Batra, 77, did not petition the court to scrap the electoral bonds scheme. But what he did was no less commendable. The year the scheme was announced, the war veteran had already established himself as an ardent campaigner for transparency, especially where the Indian taxpayer’s money was involved. The former naval officer was intrigued by the secrecy around the scheme. He filed applications under the Right to Information (RTI) Act, one after another, securing information on the number and value of the bonds. The petitions that challenged the scheme leaned quite a bit on the information dug out by Batra. His next agenda is the PM CARES Fund, which he believes is within the purview of the RTI. Excerpts from an interview with Frontline.

How did you, a former officer of the Indian Navy, get involved in a campaign for transparency?

I have been doing these projects even in service with the full blessings of the Navy. I was a Community Development Officer for the Navy. In 1999, when a super cyclone hit Odisha, we decided to pitch in. Similarly, when Gujarat was hit by a major earthquake in 2001, we stepped in. All this was part of an outreach programme that I led. I promised myself that after retirement I wouldn’t take up any job. It has been 21 years since I retired. One of my philosophies has been that the government runs with taxpayers’ money. It is the duty of every taxpayer then to participate in the democratic process and keep a watch on government expenditure. The poor pay indirect taxes all the time. They have the right to know where their money goes. To participate in a democracy, information is important. I used to take my camera, go around, take pictures, and write to editors on local issues such as water supply or pollution.

My transparency projects started several years ago. I even discovered a mistake in the Hindi version of the RTI Act. The Central government was described as a “public authority”. My first project was the Nithari murders. It was in 2006. My RTIs went on till 2010. I filed RTIs with the CBI, the PMO, and the National Commission for Women. The idea was to get reforms done as the people have a right to know. What I concluded is that people in the government don’t read reports.

Also Read | The totalitarian project behind the electoral bonds scheme

How do you view the present developments on the electoral bonds scheme?

When the scheme was announced by Arun Jaitley in 2017 on the grounds that it was aimed at bringing transparency, I realised it was not about transparency at all. The Reserve Bank of India was kept in the dark even though the scheme was as good as currency. Three major Acts were amended just to facilitate it. It was the level of arrogance that was shocking; the government did not think it important that the RBI be involved. The RBI was simply told that the government had decided. The Election Commission [EC] too was kept out of it. Both the RBI and the EC had objected to the scheme. The government refused to listen to the then RBI Governor, Urjit Patel. He wrote to Arun Jaitley to issue EBs in an electronic form (demat) with the RBI as the depository, rather than a physical scrip. He had said that the arrangement would be more secure and reduce the cost of printing. Then, ADR [Association for Democratic Reforms], Common Cause [a public interest organisation], and the Communist Party of India (Marxist) filed petitions challenging the scheme. Though I did not go to court, I think the information from my RTIs helped the case.

Was it difficult getting the information out?

The most difficult part was getting information from the Department of Revenue. At one point, I had asked for all the files relating to the amendments to the Finance Act.

If the Supreme Court had not passed the order, do you think all this information would have come out?

There was information about the number and value of electoral bonds, but no information about how much each party had received. Donor identity was also not known. The Supreme Court judgment was very timely and much needed. When I got the entire document set from the Department of Economic Affairs in August 2019, it was very difficult to look through all those documents. I felt I should share the information with the petitioners who had challenged the scheme already. A series of stories was also done by the media. Today, the information from the RTIs on electoral bonds and the information put up on the EC’s website match.

Do you think that protecting the privacy of donors is important?

Everyone knew that the 2019 election was the most expensive one. I felt that every citizen should be able to contest elections. The system needed reform badly. But the manner in which laws were amended to bring in the scheme and then to protect the donors’ identity did not inspire confidence. Why should the donors’ identity be protected? It was described as an incentive for them. I didn’t understand this. If one wants to do philanthropy, they should be open with their identity.

Also Read | Electoral bonds: Why it is a giant scam

What do you think about the role of SBI?

I used to get responses from SBI to my RTIs. But there was pressure from above. Last October, a day before the end of his term,the SBI Chairman got a 10-month extension from the government. In January 2023, SBI revealed through my RTI that electoral bonds worth Rs.11,699.84 crore were sold between March 2018 and December 2022, in 24 phases. Another RTI application revealed that since 2018, 20,734 electoral bonds, each of a value of Rs.1 crore, were encashed in New Delhi, Hyderabad, and Kolkata. Nearly 94.41 per cent of the total bonds sold were over Rs.1 crore. In the six years of electoral bonds sale, five metro cities sold over 90 per cent of electoral bonds with a value of Rs.1 crore each. Other than the business class, no ordinary person can afford to donate Rs.1 crore. The sale of Rs.1,000 denomination bonds was 0.1 per cent of the total bonds sold.

Even after the Supreme Court reserved judgment on November 2, 2023, the government went ahead and printed an additional 8,350 bonds to the value of Rs.1 crore each. I got the data from SBI: date-wise, denomination-wise, and number-wise of the electoral bonds ordered, printed and the total value. SBI spent Rs.60,43,005 on developing the IT system for it. Its operational cost was Rs.89,72,338, and the net cost of floating the electoral bonds was Rs.1,50,15,338.

In 2017-18, SBI set up customised technology for quick tracking of electoral bonds’ sale and redemption transactions. From April 2019 to January 2024, the total bonds sold were 22,217 only. It should not have been difficult for SBI to get the details of these bonds sold. The government levied 18 per cent GST on commission (service charges) on the purchase and redemption of electoral bonds. Then it reimbursed the entire amount, including the GST, to SBI. This was taxpayers’ money. This was to enable transactions of anonymous tax-free funding to political parties through the electoral bonds scheme.

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