Why did the SC Reject SBI’s Plea for More Time to Provide Details

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Why did the SC Reject SBI’s Plea for More Time to Provide Details Blog Image

What’s in Today’s Article?

  • Why in News?
  • Background of the Issue
  • Why did SBI Seek more Time to Comply?
  • What did the Contempt Plea Stipulate?
  • What did the Top Court Say?

Why in News?

The Supreme Court dismissed a plea by the State Bank of India (SBI) to extend the deadline for providing details of electoral bonds purchased anonymously and their encashment by political parties to June 30, 2024. A five-judge Bench (headed by the CJI) gave the bank 24 hours to provide the details to the Election Commission of India (ECI).

Background of the Issue

  • The petition was filed in the aftermath of the SC’s verdict striking down the electoral bonds scheme (EBS), where the Court had directed the SBI to furnish details of the bonds to the ECI by March 6, 2024.
  • These details were to include the date of purchase of each bond, the name of the purchaser of the bond and the denomination of the bond purchased.
  • The ECI was subsequently ordered to publish all such information shared by the SBI on its official website by March 13, 2024.
  • The court was also hearing a contempt plea filed by NGOs (ADR and Common Cause) against the SBI Chairman.
    • The plea contends that the bank was deliberately trying to ensure that details were not disclosed to the public before the Lok Sabha elections due in April-May.
    • Analysis reveals that the BJP was the scheme’s greatest beneficiary.

Why did SBI Seek more Time to Comply?

  • The bank said that the information and documents were scattered across its various branches and decoding them was a “time-consuming exercise.”
  • The data related to the issuance of the bond and data related to the redemption of the bond were recorded “in two different silos.”
    • This was done to ensure that donors’ anonymity was protected.
  • The Court was also informed that donor information was kept in a sealed cover at the selected branches and thereafter deposited in the organisation's main branch in Mumbai.
  • It can thus be noted that both sets of information were being stored independently of each other.
    • Thus, to re-match them would be a task requiring a significant amount of effort.
  • The SBI added that -
    • While some details such as the number of bonds issued are stored digitally,
    • Others such as the names of the purchasers and KYC documentation are stored physically in its various branches to “achieve the object of the scheme.”

What did the Contempt Plea Stipulate?

  • All electoral bond-related work was overseen by a specific team of the SBI called the Transaction Banking Unit (TBU) to ensure that the government can access crucial information on a short notice.
  • The petitioners claimed that the SBI maintains a secret number-based record of donors who buy bonds and the political parties to which they donate.
  • Additionally, each electoral bond also possessed a unique number making it easier to trace it.
  • A simple query on the database can generate a report in a particular format which does not require any manual verification.
  • The petitioners pointed out that the SBI had enough manpower to retrieve the information within the stipulated deadline.
  • Even the EBS makes it mandatory to disclose information furnished by a buyer when demanded by a competent court.

What did the Top Court Say?

  • The CJI pointed out that the judgement had not asked the bank to “match” information to ascertain who contributed to which parties and only wanted a “plain disclosure”.
    • He asserted that the SBI in its own application said that such information was “readily available”.
  • The Bench stated that it did not wish to initiate contempt proceedings against the SBI, but it was putting the bank on notice and would take action if the SBI failed to comply.

Q1) Why did the SC strike down the electoral bonds scheme (EBS)?

In the Association for Democratic Reforms v Union of India (2024), the Supreme Court held that the Electoral Bond Scheme was unconstitutional for violating the right to information of voters.

Source: Electoral bonds | Supreme Court nixes SBI plea for more time to provide details | TH