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HZL divestment: SC says how policy matters discussed in RTI

The Supreme Court on Friday said it wonders how important policy matters could be discussed through Right to Information (RTI).
HZL divestment: SC says how policy matters discussed in RTI

A bench headed by Chief Justice S.A. Bobde and comprising Justices B.R. Gavai and Surya Kant was hearing a PIL filed by National Confederation of Officers Association (NCOA) against the disinvestment of Hindustan Zinc Limited (HZL). In 2016, the apex court had directed the Modi government to maintain status quo on the proposed disinvestment of the public sector undertaking. It was a huge blow, which restricted the government to initiate any process of further disinvestment of world's second largest zinc producer, and also delayed Vedanta Resources from taking control of the company.

Advocate Prashant Bhushan representing NCOA informed the court about the information received through RTI which claimed the Department of Legal Affairs in a note in December 2012 opined that disinvestment of more than 50 per cent of the shares of the HZL and thereby changing its nature and character from a public company to ordinary company itself was not permissible in the light of the provisions contained in the Metal Corporation (Nationalization and Miscellaneous Provision) Act 1976 and also cited 2003 Supreme Court judgment.

HZL is a subsidiary of Vedanta Limited which owns 64.9 per cent stake in the company while the government of India retains a 29.54 per cent stake. If government's stake sale materializes it can fetch Rs 25,000 crore. This sale will be in an open market and not to Vedanta. "I do not know how this government is functioning." said Bhushan. Solicitor General Tushar Mehta replied, "This is not Jantar Mantar."

The Chief Justice said the information officer cannot supply information "why a policy decision was taken", instead it can tell "what decision was taken." Bhushan contended the government is supposed to share the reasons for the decision. "We wonder, how policy matters can be discussed in the RTI", said the Chief Justice.

The Chief Justice pointed out at the apex court verdict in 2016, which was passed after hearing both parties. Senior counsel representing Vedanta said the government will sell its stake in the open market and not to his client. "I want this writ to be over. Why should not the government be allowed to sell its stake", the counsel argued seeking an early date for the next hearing. The Chief Justice replied that such a major policy decision cannot be passed through an interim order. Bhushan argued that the CBI had already closed the preliminary enquiry (PE) into this disinvestment. "The details of the PE should be supplied to the complainant, they are supposed to give us the details", Bhushan contended.

Vedanta's counsel said that disinvestment occurred in 2001, and it has already been 20 years. "Look at Air India, it is bleeding. Government is willing to sell its stake", said Vedanta's counsel. After a brief hearing, the top court adjourned the matter.

( With inputs from IANS )

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