The Delhi High Court Friday stayed the Central Information Commission (CIC) order directing the Indian Air Force (IAF) to provide information regarding Special Flight Returns (SRF)-II, which contains details of the Prime Minister's entourage on his foreign trips. Justice Navin Chawla said the information sought by the RTI applicant with regard to details of the ministry or department officials who accompanied the PM on a trip cannot be disclosed, but there was no harm in providing details of the number of passengers on flights.
The court also issued a notice to the RTI applicant Commodore (retd) Lokesh K Batra and sought his stand on the IAF's appeal against the CIC's July 8 direction.
The court listed the matter for further hearing on April 12, 2021, and stayed the operation of the CIC direction till then.
It observed that the CIC ought to have been more clear as to what information can be provided and what is exempted under the Right to Information (RTI) Act.
IAF, represented by central government senior panel counsel Rahul Sharma and advocate C K Bhatt, contended there was a "dichotomy" in the CIC order as it said the information sought was exempted under the RTI, but then directed that information sought be provided after severing the sensitive details which included names and ranks of the security officials accompanying the PM.
CIC had directed IAF to provide certified copies of available and relevant SRF-I and ll to RTI applicant Batra.
Batra had sought certified copies of SRF-I and SRF-II with regard to each foreign visit of former PM Manmohan Singh as also Prime Minister Narendera Modi from April 2013 onwards.
IAF told the court that it has provided SRF-I information which contains details of number of crew and others on the PM's flight, but details of SRF-II cannot be provided as it contains names, ranks and organisation of security and other officials on the flight.
It said even providing the number of passengers on the flight was detrimental to security of the PM as it would indicate how many people accompanied him on a particular trip and anti-state elements can use it to strategise or plan some action.
The court, however, said no harm can be caused to the security of the state if only the number of passengers was provided as certain private individuals, like journalists, would have also accompanied the PM.
It made it clear that information regarding names or designation of ministry or security officials on the flight cannot be provided.
It also said that CIC had left it to IAF to decide what information from SRF-II can be provided.
The IAF, in its plea, has claimed that the "information so sought includes details related to the entire entourage, names of Special Protection Group (SPG) personnel accompanying the Prime Minister of India on foreign tours for his personal safety, and the same, if disclosed, can potentially affect the sovereignty and integrity of India, the security, strategic, scientific or economic interests of the State".
It has claimed that the CIC has "failed to appreciate and consider that the information sought by the respondent (Batra) from the petitioner (Air Force) cannot be disclosed and the application of the respondent for seeking the same ought not to have been allowed as the information sought is extremely sensitive in nature..."
It has contended that the SRF-II copies sought relate to "official records of functioning and working of the security apparatus of the Prime Minister of India which cannot be brought in public domain for safety and security reasons".