NEW DELHI: The procedure involved in raising the bills for chartered flights for Prime Minister's visit abroad cannot be disclosed because of "important security concerns", the Central Information Commission has held.
The current Chief Information Commissioner R K Mathur, however, did not alter an order passed by his predecessor Satyanand Mishra, who had ruled that the expenditure incurred on VVIP visits, including those of the Prime Minister and Ministers, should be disclosed proactively "in larger public interest".
In his order on the query of Commodore (retd) Lokesh Batra, Chief Information Commissioner R K Mathur said the information sought by him attracted section 8(1)(a) of the RTI Act which exempted it from disclosure.
Batra had sought the "laid down instructions, process/ procedure/steps involved in chartering flights for PM's foreign visits and later filing 'flight returns' and raising bills/invoices and clearing bills on completion of the visit; list of file(s)/records with reference number(s) on which bills for the chartered flights for Prime Ministers are processed since September 1, 2013".
He had also sought certified copies of 'flight return', air travel bill(s) and receipt(s) of an amount of Rs 2.45 crore paid/cleared in respect of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's visit to Bhutan on 15-16 June 2014, among others.
Before rejecting the plea seeking information under the RTI Act, the Prime Minister's Office said during the hearing that "each and every piece of information relating to arrangements for PM's visit is confidential and sensitive."
It said all travel arrangements of the PM, whether foreign or domestic, involved "important security concerns".
These aspects are looked into by multiple agencies, including intelligence and security organisations which are included in 2nd Schedule of the RTI Act and exempted under section 24 of the RTI law, the PMO said.
"On November 09, 2016, the Commission perused 3-4 different files regarding travel bills of the PM, as produced by the respondent no. 1 (PMO). On perusal of the files, the Commission is convinced that the sought for information are of nature which is exempted under Section 8(1)(a) of the RTI Act, 2005," Mathur said in the order.
Batra had filed the RTI application as a large number of bills were not paid to Air India for the foreign visits of the Prime Minister.
The aircraft were chartered by Ministry of External Affairs, which said it had no role in a delay in payment to the national carrier. The MEA said as per the practice, upon receiving the bills, it forwarded those to the Civil Aviation Ministry and then to the PMO, apparently hinting that responsibility for delayed payment lay at their doors.
The retired Naval officer wanted to see records to know why these bills were kept pending as Air India was already facing the cash crunch.
"I am disappointed with the order," Batra said.
During the hearing, he had told the Commission that the PMO website during the period concerned showed only five bills had been paid and 14-15 were pending.