While upholding the order of the State Commission, the Kerala High Court has observed that Cochin International Airport Ltd. (CIAL) is a public authority that falls within the ambit of the Right to Information (RTI) Act.

Justice Amit Rawal was hearing a batch of pleas moved by CIAL challenging the Kerala State Information Commission's 2019 order holding that the company was a public authority and directing it to disclose the information sought by some RTI applicants regarding minutes of its Board meetings.

The Court held, "The minutes of the Board meeting, after its approval are sent to the registrar of Company. It is therefore a public document and thus cannot be said to be personal information as exempted under section 8(1)(j) of the Act."

CIAL had claimed before the Court that it was not a public authority and that the information sought under RTI was personal information that was exempt from disclosure under the transparency law.

Rejecting its contention, the High Court held, "The order of the State Information Commission dated June 20, 2019 in a batch of petitions assailed by the petitioner (CIAL) is perfectly justified and legal. Accordingly, upheld. Writ petitions (of CIAL) are dismissed."

The Court further held that CIAL is a public authority.

The Bench further remanded back to the State Public Information Officer (SPIO) of the CIAL an application, by one of the company's shareholders, seeking share transfer details of another shareholder and directed that the information be provided in accordance with the law.

During the hearing of the matter, CIAL had contended that it was not a public authority as the Kerala government has no control over its decisions which are taken by the Board of Directors. It had also contended that nomination or appointment of Directors, including the Managing Director of the company was subject to the Board's decision and even power of the government to nominate 1/3rd of the Directors was subject to the final decision of the Board and the company does not require the approval of the government.

CIAL had also claimed that the empanelment of the Kerala Chief Minister, Pinarayi Vijayan, as its Chairman and the authorisation he has to nominate Directors, including the MD, would not mean the government has substantially financed the company and has control over its management and affairs.

The RTI applicants, on the other hand, had contended that CIAL's website reveals it received a Rs 100 million bridge loan from the Federal Bank with the Kerala government standing as a guarantor. Besides that even the Housing and Urban Development Corporation of India (HUDCO), also on the guarantee of the Kerala government, provided a term loan of Rs one billion, they had told the court and claimed that, therefore, CIAL was a public authority.

The High Court in its 75-page order held that while a mere shareholding of the state government would not lead to a conclusion that it has a deep and pervasive control over the company, the facts along with the Articles of Association and the "candid admission" of CIAL on its website leaves no doubt that the Kerala government has control over it.

"...therefore, the petitioner company CIAL would definitely fall within the definition of public authority as provided under the RTI Act," the Court held.

The Court further noted that other than the CM as chairman, out of three of the Directors, two are ministers and the Manager is of the rank of Chief Secretary or Additional Secretary.

"The Managing Director of the company is an IAS officer and the salary is being drawn from the state exchequer. The order of the State Information Commission is perfectly legal and justified and does not call forth any interference under Article 226 of the Constitution of India," the High Court held.

Accordingly, the Court dismissed the Writ Petitions and upheld the order of the State Commission.

Cause Title - John George Nechupadom & Ors. v. Kerala State Information Commission & Ors. [Neutral Citation No. 2022/KER/69723]

Click here to read/download the Judgment

With PTI Inputs