Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Delhi Municipal Corporation facilitates online RTI applications


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Kudos to Delhi Municipal Corporation for facilitating online RTI applications
June 29, 2011 10:29 AM Bookmark and Share
Vinita Deshmukh


What the external affairs ministry has been unable to achieve in terms of facilitating Indians abroad on RTI—to make online RTI applicationsand also pay the fees online—the Municipal Corporation of Delhi has successfully introduced this facility 


Last week, I had written about how Indians living abroad are finding it difficult to file RTI applications to various government departments back in their home country, thanks to red tapism. I had highlighted how despite the Department of Posts (DoP) making arrangements with Axis Bank for online payments for overseas online RTI applications, the finance ministry and the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) are sitting on the issue and have yet to take a decision. (Read: "Indians living abroad keen to use RTI, but the government isn't making it easier")

In the meanwhile, very quietly, yet actively, the Delhi Municipal Corporation (MCD) has created history, by becoming the first to facilitate online RTIapplications along with online payment of fees through credit or debit card. This is one of the most pro-active examples of a public authority (meaning government department, in RTI parlance) responding to citizens' issues, in line with the principles of transparency and good governance, the very fundamentals of a healthy democracy, facilitated by the Right to Information (RTI) Act.

How did it all begin? Dr RC Patnaik, chief of the information technology department of MCD, who has been designated to bring in e-governance reforms in the civic body says, "The MCD has around 200 public information officers (PIOs) and we receive a lot of RTI applicationseveryday. Since most citizens are not aware about the correct PIO to whom they should address their query, transferring the applications to the appropriate PIO was a cumbersome job. Sometimes it would take a month to pass on such applications to the right desk. As a result, central information commissioner Shailesh Gandhi would admonish us for defaults and penalise us too.''

This set Dr Patnaik thinking about an online option, at the behest of the municipal commissioner. "So a few months back, I hit upon the idea of scanning the RTI applications which came to the wrong PIO and sending it to the right one by email. Although it temporarily solved much of the problem, it still was not clear sailing.''

Dr Patnaik's IT team then began exploring the possibility of filing RTIapplications online, along with online payment of the Rs10 fee for every RTI application under Section 6 of the RTI Act. The hurdle of online payment was solved through an official arrangement with Axis Bank. The bank was hesitant initially, as this is a very small amount. But since property tax is paid online through Axis Bank and that is a major sum in a city like Delhi, it agreed to process the small transaction also, as a goodwill gesture.

Dr Patnaik explained, "The RTI applicant has to pay Rs11; the one rupee extra is the transaction charge.'' He was not sure whether MCD would be criticized for the one rupee extra charge. However, the central information commissioner put this matter to rest saying, "Any RTI applicant has to either pay for the postage or fuel if he or she goes personally to MCD to file the RTI application. In the case of online application you pay just one rupee, which in fact saves precious time and travel expenses for citizens.'' Mr Gandhi congratulated the MCD and expressed the hope, "Now, every municipal corporation should follow suit.''

In just five days after initiating the online RTI application facility, the MCD received 71 applications from citizens in Delhi and two from people in Hyderabad and Ahmedabad. "In this technological era, we are committed towards e-governance for the comfort of citizens,'' Dr Patnaik says.

We gather from the website, www.mcdonline.gov.in, "The Municipal Corporation of Delhi is among the largest municipal bodies in the world, providing civic services to an estimated population of 13.78 million citizens in the capital city. It is next only to Tokyo in terms of area."

To enter the RTI application area, click on the sub-category "RTI online'' on the homepage of the MCD website. On the right side you will see the online RTI application. It has also uploaded other forms related to RTIapplications.

Now that MCD has set a precedent, all municipal corporations must follow suit. "Every government department can now have online RTI applicationsand we are ready to guide and help them.''

In another first, the Pune Municipal Corporation (PMC) has over the past two years, set 3pm to 5pm, every Monday, for any citizen to conduct inspection of files, as allowed under Section 4 of the RTI Act. He or she can visit any of the departments of the PMC and check the files required. This is over and above any other time that citizens can inspect files during working hours. PMC was also the first to set up an RTI library, which has been named after renowned journalist-activist Prakash Kardaley. All these efforts are the result of rules under Section 4 which focus on suo moto disclosure by the government department.

MCD's endeavour on online RTI applications is a big boost for citizens' participation and it should not remain a solitary example. RTI activists in every city must move to shake up the civic bodies in their areas, and insist that they follow the MCD initiative.

Do write to me for any help regarding this at vinitapune@gmail,com.

(Vinita Deshmukh is a senior editor, author and convener of Pune Metro Jagruti Abhiyaan. She can be reached at vinitapune@gmail.com.)

RTI activists plead with information commissioners for more transparency


RTI activists plead with information commissioners to compel public authorities to put up mandatory data on Web
June 25, 2011 12:32 PM Bookmark and Share
Vinita Deshmukh
rti-comminsioner

Over 5.5 lakh RTI applications were filed in Maharashtra in 2010, but thenumber of appeals were lower, according to the official annual report. Last week, activists discussed with state information commissioners the ways to make RTI more vibrant and effective 

A total 5.5 lakh RTI applications were submitted to various government departments in Maharashtra in 2010, confirming the state's pre-eminent position in the use of the Right to Information and public activism. According to the annual report of the chief information commissioner Vilas Patil, of the total applications, 59,000 (or about 10%) went into first appeals. However, the number of second appeals declined from 23,000 in 2009 to 19,000 in 2010.

These numbers are encouraging. But there are issues to be sorted out to ensure effective use of the Right to Information (RTI) Act. Some of these issues were brought up at a meeting of the state information commissioners with regular RTI users, held at the office of the State Information Commission at Mantralaya on Friday.

RTI users, activists of the Mahiti Adhikar Manch and Maharashtra RTI Council, yesterday appealed to the seven information commissioners who were present at the meeting along with the chief commissioner to "enforce" on public authorities to suo moto disclose information on their websites, which is mandatory under Section 4 of the RTI Act.

In response to this plea, Mr Patil said he had sent a circular to about 350 public authorities across the state, in December 2010, directing them to do this by 31 January 2011. But he reported, sounding quite helpless, "About 60% of the public authorities have not even replied to me. What am I supposed to do? I suggest that RTI activists take up this matter with the chief secretary to ensure its implementation.''

Bhaskar Prabhu, convener of Mahiti Adhikar Manch and Maharashtra RTI Council, suggested that since YASHADA (the Yashwantrao Chavan Academy of Development Administration) had already worked out a format that facilitates monitoring of public authorities regarding suo motodisclosure under Section 4 of the Act, the information commission should use that to keep tab on them.

Navin Kumar, information commissioner for the Konkan Region, suggested that since there was a shortage of manpower, outsourcing to NGOs was a possibility. "Since the state commission has already drawn out a list of the 60% of those public authorities who have defied this rule, citizen groups could file RTI applications on each one of them, and file a complaint with the information commissioners, and we ensure you action."

Aurangabad information commissioner DB Deshpande said, "There are many instances of public authorities having followed this rule and having made their functioning transparent, like MSEDCL (Maharashtra State Electricity Distribution Company), PMC (Pune Municipal Corporation) and the University of Mumbai. The archaic system of punishment will not help.'' Activist Vijay Kumbhar suggested that if strong action is taken, like "issuing summons or levying penalty", public authorities would be motivated to adhere to Section 4.

On reducing pendency and hastening disposal of second appeals, Mr Kumar suggested that all ten posts of information commissioners should be filled, which means that three more officials should be added to the seven, currently. The average clearance of cases is around 300 per month. Activists lamented that "more than increasing the number of commissioners, the state should provide each information commissioner with full-fledged 'relevant' staff, in order to increase efficiency of disposing appeals." Mr Patil confessed that funds or manpower do not come by very easily.

Pune division state information commissioner Vijay Kuvlekar is said to have succeeded in reducing pendency, with a novel exercise to bringing the applicant and the appellate authority/PIO together on a one-on-one basis, to try and sort out the issue at that level. Of the 300 appeals, 200 were solved by mutual consent. Mr Kuvlekar suggested this could be one of the ways in reducing pendency. However, this line of action was unreasonably criticised by various quarters.

Mr Patil confessed that "most of the second appeals did not adhere to the norms of the RTI Act and were irrelevant. Many of them gave multiple appeals on the same issue, but we are compelled to go through each appeal, which wastes our time." Mr Kuvlekar pointed out that of the 2,700 appeals, 900 appeals belonged to 60 individuals.  Mr Patil said that "in Maharashtra much of the information is being successfully given by thepublic information officers and the first appellate authority. We have not received complaints about documents under the Adarsh case, etc." He says information commissioners are left with a large number of trash appeals.

Regarding digitalisation and computerisation of the State InformationCommission's website, Mr Kuvlekar suggested a public-private partnership in which no money will be involved, but citizens and citizen groups come forward to undertake the digitalisation work. Mr Patil confessed that a sanction of Rs18 lakh to upgrade the website is still pending with the state government.

The two-hour interaction session concluded with the information commissioners agreeing to take up the compliance with Section 4 as top priority, with the help of citizens' groups, and towards having a full strength of ten information commissioners.

Indians living abroad keen to use RTI but...

Indians living abroad keen to use RTI, but the government isn’t making it easier
June 22, 2011 06:39 PM Bookmark and Share
Vinita Deshmukh

A couple of activists have spearheaded a campaign to make it moreconvenient for Indians living abroad to use the RTI Act. One of the issues is providing an online facility to make relevant payments on RTI applications. But their efforts have met with indifference by the government 

Thousands of Indians reside in other countries where they are employed, engaged in business, or for studies. Many more travel to other countries for shorter periods as visitors. Despite the distance, they stay connected not only with their families back home, but with the issues in India. Many of them have a desire to actively participate in India's governance.

Ever since the implementation of the Right to Information (RTI) Act in 2005, their hopes to access information and keep a tab on governance had brightened. But six years down the line, they are still pleading with the Indian government to make the payment of fees applicable under the RTI Act, payable online, from the country where they reside and in the relevant currency. For this, they are seeking the purchase of postal order online, which is the most popular mode of payment under the RTI Act, towards payment of fees. This would facilitate sending their RTI application directly to the Public Information Officer (PIO) of any government department in India.

There is a flicker of hope. According to a document procured by Commodore (retd) Lokesh Batra, the Department of Posts has written to the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) on 4 February 2011, stating that, "The Department of Posts has developed a portal called 'e-portal' office. We have received a reference from the secretary, Department of Personnel and Training, requesting to include a provision for the purchase of Indian postal orders by Indian citizens living abroad, to enable them to seek information under the RTI Act, 2005. The challenge faced by the Indian citizens is in remitting the prescribed fee for seeking information as per the specified mode of the Act. The post office can provide a solution to this challenge, since the Indian postal order is one of the most prescribed mode of payment under the RTI Act. To put a system in place to facilitate this, we would require clearance to accept credit card/debit card for online payment from abroad through e-portal.''

Further, RTI documents reveal that the Department of Posts has also written to the RBI on 15 March 2011 stating that Axis Bank has been accepted as the "payment gateway provider'' for such online payments.

However, the RBI in its reply on 15 June 2011 to Cmde Batra's RTI query on the status of letters from the Department of Posts, has said, quite ridiculously, "The RBI has not taken a final decision on the request of the Department of Posts. As such this information cannot be given as per Section 8 of the RTI Act.''

Cmde Batra, who resides in Noida, has filed 50 RTI applications since 2008, seeking information on action taken by different government departments, whether it is the Ministry of Finance, the Department of Personnel and Training (which implements the RTI Act), the Department of Posts (which can make e- payment possible), the National Advisory Council (NAC) and the Prime Minister's Office (PMO).

Indians living in the United States have taken up the RTI campaign since 2007. Vishal Kudchadkar, member of the Association for India's Development (AID), which has undertaken a crusade against corruption and is working on various developmental issues, says, "Even after six years, Indian citizens living abroad are unable to access information, as per their right, in the absence of procedures/rules to be framed by the government for payment of RTI fees in foreign currency from abroad. Each time I have to depend on my friends in India to pay fees for my RTI applications and appeals.''

Mr Kudchadkar, who is based in Los Angeles, has invoked the RTI Act on several issues. One of these was to the Maharashtra home ministry seeking information on the establishment of Police Personnel Board, Police Grievance Authority and State Security Board, post 9/11 Mumbai terror attack. He has also filed RTI applications on the Bhopal gas tragedy, the civil strife in Nandigram and similar SEZ issues.

Cmde Batra, who is steering the campaign for Indians abroad, plunged into the matter during a visit to the US in 2008. The date for his appeal before the Information Commission in Delhi was fixed while he was abroad, and then chief information commissioner, Dr Wajahat Habibullah, allowed the hearing through audio-conferencing. However, when he began to ask about regular RTI applications filed from the US, he found that Indians there faced many hurdles.

The Indian embassy in Washington put its hands up, saying that it could only accept RTI applications pertaining to queries related to its office, or at the most those related to the Ministry of External Affairs. The Indians tried to impress upon the embassy that under Section 6(3) it is the duty of the PIO to forward applications not relevant to him, to the concerned departments. But the embassy refused to take responsibility.

Cmde Batra says, "The denial of the use of the RTI Act applies to all Indian citizens living abroad, including those who may be abroad for short visits, for education and for jobs or business, even officials posted in Indian missions or on deputation to international bodies, and so on.''

So, he addressed RTI queries to various ministries concerned with this issue, like the Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs (MOIA), Ministry of External Affairs (MEA), Department of Personnel and Training (DoPT) the PMO and the NAC, as to what action had been taken to facilitate Indians abroad to use the RTI Act and to make it easy for them to pay the fees online, but there was no reply. Com Batra also sought to know the status of the petition sent by Indians living abroad and wrote to prime minister Manmohan Singh to intervene in the issue.

Cmde Batra then filed a complaint with the Central InformationCommission (CIC) in April 2009 against the ministries for not providing him the required information. Information commissioner Annapurna Dixit gave an order on 16 April 2010 asking the Department of Personnel and Training to "formulate" a system to "facilitate accessibility of the Act by Indians abroad".

Simultaneously, Indians abroad launched an online global campaign in April 2010 addressing an "Appeal to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh" to "intervene to speedily resolve the problem". The petition carried signatures of 316 Indians residing in Australia, Burundi, Canada, Dubai, Ethiopia, France, Germany, Holland, Japan, Kuwait, Maldives, New Zealand, Singapore, South Korea, Sweden, Switzerland, South Africa, UAE, the UK and the US.

On 17 May 2010, a delegation of US-based Indian activists submitted the petition to the prime minister through the nominated representative of Meera Shankar, then Indian ambassador in Washington, requesting him to forward the submission to the prime minister.

The petition said: "Our suggestion is that just as the government has facilitated APIOs by the postal department in India for all public authorities, along similar lines, the government should facilitate an APIO in each Indian Mission/Post in local embassies and charge fees equivalent to rupees.

"Alternatively, we suggest that arrangements may be made by the MEA, the administrative ministry for Indians abroad, for missions to accept RTI fees in foreign currency from applicants filing RTI to central public authorities, using the same procedure as they are hitherto doing for RTI applications concerning their own ministry. The mission's role would be to accept the fee along with a copy of passport to verify citizenship and issue a receipt/E-receipt to the applicant for the fee. Thereafter, either the mission or the RTI applicant can forward the application to the concerned central public authority (PA) online… Any additional costs for providing the information can be remitted to the mission in the same way and the receipt/E-receipt given by the mission can serve as proof of payment.''

The Prime Minister's Office has been silent on the issue.

Cmde Batra though has not given up. He feels victory is round the corner. "I am going to file an appeal against the reply of the Public Information Officer of the Reserve Bank of India which says that it comes under Section 8 of the RTI Act, meaning information cannot be disclosed. I would also be conducting inspection of files in the Ministry of Finance department," he says.

(Vinita Deshmukh is a senior editor, author and convener of Pune Metro Jagruti Abhiyaan. She can be reached at vinitapune@gmail.com.)

Invoke RTI if your neighbourhood is flooded

Is your neighbourhood flooded? Are the nullahs encroached upon? Invoke RTI
June 15, 2011 11:20 AM Bookmark and Share
Vinita Deshmukh
anupamsaraph

Cities like Delhi, Mumbai and Pune get flooded even with one long heavy shower during the monsoon. The reason is not so much the unexpected heavy rainfall, as much as it has to do with the expected failure of the municipal corporations to make storm water drains, or allowing illegal encroachments on nullahs and streams. RTI can help you nail them. 

That flash floods are not necessarily the outcome of nature's fury, was proved in Pune during the last monsoon. An entire slum was submerged under 5-6 feet of water, because a housing society in the neighbourhood had constructed its compound wall on the nullah itself. In another incident, a young mother and her infant were miraculously rescued as they were being carried away by water that gushed through the bathroom window around midnight and flooded the bedroom. The entire residential area suffered flooding. The cause: about 200 illegal structures on the Ramnadi. There are similar stories in Mumbai and Delhi, perhaps some other cities too.

Are we to bear this threat to life and limb because of corrupt elected representatives and municipal officials? No, we need not. We can invoke the Right to Information (RTI) Act, while staying alert about what's happening to the water bodies and channels in the neighbourhood.

RTI activist Vijay Kumbhar has some suggestions and advises invoking Section 4 of the RTI Act.
> Demand a map of your neighbourhood from the municipal corporation, in order to get a proper idea of the nullahs, streams and rivers that exist in your area. Set up a neighbourhood committee to physically inspect if any encroachments have taken place in these areas.
> Besides physical inspection, demand documents/correspondence pertaining to kuccha and pucca illegal encroachments if any, and the action taken against these.
> Ask for documents of tenders for de-silting of water bodies and how much expenditure has been incurred.
> Apply for copies of circulars/GRs (government resolutions) on preservation of water bodies, especially after the 26 July 2005 deluge in Mumbai.
Also, get copies of circulars/GRs, if any, since the Bombay High Court judgement on the Mithi River.
> Ask about the work that has been undertaken by the municipal corporation for storm water drains, de-silting of water bodies, any other steps taken to free the water bodies from encroachments like construction and garbage.

After you have this information, if you find encroachments, immediately file a complaint with the municipal commissioner. Last month, Bavdhan residents (particularly those in Ramnagar Colony) in Pune launched a major agitation based on the physical verification of the Ramnadi that flows through their neighbourhood. In their case, the encroachment on the river has been the construction rubble dumped there by builders. In April 2011, they held a relay hunger protest for two days on the main road in their colonies. Ahead of the protest, they dashed off a letter to the municipal commissioner, demanding the removal of the rubble, as well as the encroachments, in order that they do not suffer flash floods again, as had happened during the monsoon last year.

In response to their demand, the municipal commissioner got four excavators to complete the removal of rubble. Earlier, when such clearance work was undertaken by the Pune Municipal Corporation (PMC), the workers would dig out the muck and deposit it some 100 metres away, and this would flow back into the river in the first rains. This time, citizens are actively monitoring the work, taking turns. A part of the neighbourhood comes under the Pune collectorate.

Earlier, the collector failed to respond to these citizens who complained about flash floods on account of upcoming residential constructions. They named four or five building projects, wherein compound walls had encroached on the river. One of them is now being demolished, voluntarily, by the builder. "Relentless vigilance by neighbourhood citizens is the only way to get work done in a proper manner,'' says Vinod Bodhankar, member of "Biradari", the organisation that has taken up the matter of encroachments on water bodies in a very big way.

Another example of citizens' participation to stop encroachment and concretisation of the Devnadi and to preserve the natural environment, is available in the upmarket housing societies of Concord Proxima, Gera Emerald City and some other societies on Baner Road. After a tenacious struggle with the PMC, the residents were compelled to file a public interest litigation (PIL) in the Bombay High Court. Last month, the HighCourt ordered the PMC to stop concretising the Devnadi and shelve the ambitious Rs400-crore project under the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM).

Anupam Saraph, a prominent resident in the area, led the agitation in early 2010, under the banner of 'Baner Ara Sabha'. The Devnadi flows behind their apartments, and the residents were delighted when they realised that 60 metres on either side of the river had been cleared of encroachments. Then, sensing that construction activity in adjoining areas could result inencroachment again, residents came together to pledge greening of the river banks through tree plantation, developing nature trails, creating bunds to enhance groundwater percolation, and cleansing the river water through natural methods and barriers. The garden superintendent of the PMC, who was invited to visit the area, appreciated this achievement through citizens' participation.

However, a few months later, the residents suddenly spotted excavators and saw some activity. On inquiring, they were told that as part of the JNNURM project, the Devnadi was to be concretised. This would mean constricting the width of the river and halting groundwater percolation (due to concretisation), which would lead to flash floods during the rains. Mr Saraph says, "On 4 October 2010, Pune witnessed a huge cloud-burst. Various locations where channelisation/concretisation has happened, including the stream behind the municipal commissioner's bungalow, suffered heavy flooding. But there was no flood on the Devnadi as it is not channelized. (It has an average width of 50-60 metres.) Now, the PMC wants to destroy that.''

These residents also took the guidance of waterman Dr Rajendra Singh who had applauded their efforts, which contributed to the implementation of the urban watershed policy.

Alarmed by the sudden activity, residents not only protested, but they also invoked the RTI. They had been intelligently making resolutions on the conservation of Devnadi and sending minutes of the meetings to the additional city engineer, along with a copy to the municipal commissioner. The additional commissioner, who also visited the site once, accepted the resolutions. The residents demanded copies of these resolutions and demanded to know what action had been taken. They found file notings in which the additional commissioner had stated that the Devnadi should be preserved, and they also discovered the municipal commissioner's noting asking him to ignore the development plan which does not permit concretisation of nullahs.

While this pressure by citizens helped, last month, the PMC surreptitiously started releasing sewage water into the Devnadi. Once again, these alert citizens were up in arms. This time, they marched straight away to the doors of the Bombay High Court, which gave an order in their favour and asked the PMC to reply.

Vijay Kumbhar has also invoked Section 4 of the RTI Act, after last year's monsoons, and asked for the number of illegal encroachments on water bodies. The PMC has given him a list of 17 major encroachments. Armed with this information, Mr Kumbhar and Maj Gen SCN Jatar, another leading RTI activist, have formed a one-man commission under Justice PB Sawant, and are collecting complaints from citizens to finally hand it over to the PMC to compel it to act.

In 2009, journalist Partha Sarathi Biswas invoked Section 4 of the RTI Act at the PMC, to procure a copy of the report made by Primove and TWIC on the nullah system in the city. The detailed study identified 164.51 km of nullahs in the city. Dividing the city into 12 basins, the study identified encroachments too, but the PMC has hardly taken any action on this, despite having spent Rs1.5 crore as consultancy fees.

Mumbai-based ecologist-activist Jagdish Gandhi also filed a public interest litigation in the Bombay High Court regarding encroachments on the Mithi river because of which the Brihanmumbai Mahanagarpalika was forced to take action.

The moral of these accounts is, 'do not ignore flash floods'. Act. Invoke the RTI. Make a noise.

(Vinita Deshmukh is a senior editor, author and convener of Pune Metro Jagruti Abhiyaan. She can be reached at vinitapune@gmail.com.)

Citizen's struggle brings private airports under RTI Act

A citizen’s successful struggle that has finally brought private airports under the RTI Act
June 08, 2011 01:19 PM Bookmark and Share
Vinita Deshmukh
sanjay-shirodhar

Citizen activist Sanjay Shirodkar single-handedly took on Mumbai International Airport (MIAL) which refused to provide information, saying that it cannot come under the RTI Act. On 30th May, Central Information Commissioner Sushma Singh ordered that privately-managed airports come under the purview of the RTI Act. It’s an important decision that will impact all public-private partnerships that tend to be secretive in their functioning 

On 18th May, I had described in a report on MoneyLife how RTI activist Sanjay Shirodkar has since 2008 relentlessly pursued the matter of bringing Mumbai International Airport (MIAL) under the purview of the Right to Information Act. His contention, on the basis of documents which he procured, was that the Airports Authority of India (AAI) has a 26% stake in the public-private partnership; that AAI has leased out 2,000 acres of government land to the private operator; and that it has also waived Rs250 crore stamp duty, which made it a case of "substantial funding" by a government body. Mr Shirodkar also cited two other decisions of the Central Information Commission (CIC) wherein the Delhi International Airport (DIAL) and the Bangalore International Airport (BIAL) were ordered to be brought under the purview of the RTI Act.
(Read, "Airport operators sit on valuable public property, avail of concessions, but will not be accountable".)

In the case of DIAL, the CIC said that "the Commission is of the opinion that a holding of 26% is quite substantial for any company, and therefore, Section 2(1), which states that any body owned, controlled or substantially financed is a public authority, is applicable to DIAL, and hence it is bound by the directions of the RTI Act. The Commission, therefore, directs DIAL to provide for the directions of the RTI. This must be done within 15 days of the issue of the order."

On 11 June 2008, Mr Shirodkar got a similar order from the CIC with respect to MIAL, but MIAL decided to file a petition in the Delhi High Court. The High Court re-directed the CIC order back to the CIC. On 13 May 2011, central information commissioner Sushma Singh sent copies of theGeneral Administration Department (GAD), Mantralaya, letter procured by Mr Shirodkar which stated that MIAL has been given a stamp duty concession of Rs250 crore and that it operates on 2,000 acres of government land. Now, is this not sufficient premise for MIAL to come under the RTI Act, with such substantial funding from the government.

Finally on 30 May 2011, Sushma Singh gave an order, citing reasons why MIAL is a public authority, and asked MIAL to appoint a public informationofficer (PIO) within 30 days of the receipt order. Ms Singh concluded by stating: "We find no hesitancy in declaring MIAL as a public authority under clauses (d) and (i) respectively of Section 2(h) of the RTI Act. MIAL shall appoint a CPIO and FAA within 30 days of the receipt of this order and shall also fulfill the mandate of Section 4(1) disclosure as mandated under the RTI Act within two months of the receipt of the order."

This landmark order by the CIC on 30th May, bringing private airports under the purview of the RTI Act, has larger ramifications for every public-private partnership venture in India that tends to indulge in secrecy. 

It is interesting to note the sequel of issues that led Ms Singh to give the order.
Singh addressed three issues.
1. Whether MIAL was established, or constituted, by an order of an appropriate government body.
2. Whether MIAL is a body controlled by the appropriate government body.
3. Whether MIAL is substantially financed either directly, or indirectly, by funds provided by the appropriate government body.

Let's examine the arguments.

Whether MIAL was established, or constituted, by an order of an appropriate government body 

The argument: As part of the Government of India's avowed policy of privatisation of strategic national assets, the first step appears to be privatisation of the two airports in Mumbai and Delhi on a joint venture basis. Thus,
> In March 2003, AAI initiated the process to consider modernisation of the Delhi and Mumbai airports, on the basis of an earlier decision taken by the Union Cabinet relating to restructuring of airports of the AAI on a long-term lease basis.
> On 11 September 2003, the central government approved restructuring of Mumbai and Delhi airports through joint ventures.
> On 4 February 2006, the central government announced the names of the successful bidders, that is GVK for Mumbai airport and GMR for Delhi airport.
> On 3 February 2006, a special purpose vehicle (SPV) was formed for Mumbai airport.
> On 4 February 2006, an Operations Management and Development Agreement (OMDA) was signed by both parties. Thus, 26% shares in the SPV were with AAI and 74% was allotted to GVK.
> MIAL is a company registered under the Companies Act 1956 and is a joint venture company that was incorporated on 2 March 2006. It is a consortium of GVK Airport Holdings Pvt Ltd, ACSA Global Ltd, Bid Services Division (Mauritius) Ltd and AAI.
> MIAL has been set up with the objective of operating, maintaining, developing, designing, constructing, upgrading, modernising, financing and managing airports.

Whether MIAL is a body controlled by the appropriate government body 

The argument: The AAI has leased out Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport to MIAL for 30 years and renewable for a further 30 years.
> MIAL is a joint venture company in which 26% shareholding is held by AAI and this gives control to AAI over vital matters which require 3/4th majority.
> MIAL is the lessee of the AAI under Section 12A of the AAI Act which provides that some of the functions of the AAI may be transferred to MIAL. Thus, MIAL is a special purpose joint venture company formed only because of Section 12A of the AAI Act.
> The restructuring of Mumbai and Delhi international airports was to take place only through the joint venture route and the bidders were thus under obligation to create a special purpose vehicle…Clause (d) of Section 2(h) of the RTI Act contemplates exactly such a situation by using the words "body established or constituted by an order made by the appropriate government".
> Section 28A to Section 28R of the AAI Act provide the procedure foreviction of unuathorised occupants of airports. The provisions are on the lines of the Public Premises (Eviction) Act. Thus, this section is a strong and powerful indicator that airports are public premises and the company running them is backed by the control of the appropriate government.
> 26% of share capital of MIAL is held by AAI, which can therefore block any special resolution that is to be passed under the Companies Act. Therefore, no change in the MoU or articles of association of the company can be made unless AAI gives its consent.

Whether MIAL is substantially financed either directly, or indirectly, by funds provided by the appropriate government body 


The argument: The central government has a large financial stake in MIAL. Not only does AAI own 26% of the paid-up share capital of MIAL (which can never be reduced, but can only be increased) MIAL also has to give 38.7% of its gross revenue (quite apart from the down payment made by way of consideration for the grant of the lease) to the Act.
> According to a letter sent by the state government to Mr Shirodkar, it is categorically agreed that the state government has waived stamp duty worth Rs200 crore-Rs250 crore with respect to MIAL. The complainant (Mr Shirodkar) had submitted to us (CIC) that MIAL is using 2,000 acres of AAI leased land at concessional rates, the actual market value of which is otherwise close to Rs50,000 crore.
> As per the lease deed executed between AAI and MIAL on 26 April 2006, article IV, titled 'Lease Rent', states that MIAL shall pay an annual lease of Rs100 payable in advance on 1st April. (My comment: Would you believe the joke that 2,000 acres of prime land is given at Rs100 annual rent?) MIAL clearly reaps the benefits of the substantial amounts received by way of waiver, equity, concessional land use… Such contributions are crystal clear in themselves to affirm that MIAL has received "substantial funding" indirectly.

Hence, MIAL is clearly a case of being substantially funded. Will it now abide by the order and come under the purview of the RTI Act?

Indeed, it is a great citizens' victory!

THE STORY SO FAR 

On 1 January 2008: Sanjay Shirodkar files a complaint.

2 February 2008: Mumbai International Airport (MIAL) says it is not a public authority under the RTI Act.

17 January 2007: In another appeal filed by Delhi RTI activist Anil Heble before the CIC, Delhi, against the AAI, Delhi International Airport (DIAL) declared as public authority by the CIC.

20 February 2008: Shirodkar files another complaint with the CIC.

11 June 2008: CIC issued an order stating that MIAL is a public authority under the RTI Act.

16 July 2008:
 Mr Shirodkar sends complaint to CIC stating that MIAL is not following CIC order. Instead, MIAL files a case in the Delhi High Court.

22 November 2010:
 The CIC's decision of 11 June 2008 is set aside on the ground that "no opportunity provided to MIAL to present its case". High court also directs CCI to restore Mr Shirodkar's appeal and hear both sides.

CIC postpones first two hearings due to Mr Shirodkar's absence. The next hearing took place on 13 May 2011, at which the CIC sent a letter from the GAD which stated that MIAL was exempted from paying Rs250 crore stamp duty; it asked MIAL to explain this concession.

30 March 2011: CIC gives an order stating that MIAL comes under the purview of the RTI Act and that MIAL should appoint a public information officer within 30 days of receiving the order.

(Vinita Deshmukh is a senior editor, author and convener of Pune Metro Jagruti Abhiyaan. She can be reached at vinitapune@gmail.com.)

Farmer invokes RTI to get back his land title

'My name is Nathu Gaikwad. I may not be literate, but I used the RTI Act to get back land taken by land sharks'
June 01, 2011 06:23 PM Bookmark and Share
Vinita Deshmukh
land1

This is the story of a villager who has been fighting against land sharks in Pune district. He has used the RTI Act in his struggle to get back 74 acres that was fraudulently taken by three businessmen, in connivance with land records officials, and in total disregard of a high court order torestore the title to the rightful owners 

The changing of ownership titles of large tracts of land in Mulshi and Maval talukas, in Pune district, without the knowledge of original title holders, most of them farmers, to build resorts and farmhouses for the urban rich, is a scandal that has been going on for over a decade.

A few years back, superstar Amitabh Bachchan made the headlines in one such deal, when he purchased land in Maval taluka on the basis of a certificate given by the district collector of Barabanki in Uttar Pradesh, stating that he owned agricultural land there since 1982, which gave him the status of a farmer. Mr Bachchan subsequently returned the land to the Pune district collectorate, free of cost, requesting the collector to return it to the original farmers.

There are several land swindlers who have been engaged in changing original land titles in connivance with revenue officials at the taluka level and selling these properties to urbanites, who may not be aware of the scam. Hundreds of original title holders, mostly innocent and ignorant farmers have shown utter helplessness at the hands of this land-snatching mafia.

Nathu Sakharam Gaikwad, one such victim, has-without paying even a naya paisa of bribe to any government officer-bravely fought to retrieve 74 acres of land in Sadapur and Dongargav villages of Maval taluka, that was fraudulently transferred in the names of three Pune businessmen Surendra Anand, SN Birdi and SS Gokhale. The original landowners are members of his son-in-law's family-Ram Maruti Ghare, Ganpat Maruti Ghare and Laxman Maruti Ghare. The struggle to reclaim the rightful title tohis son-in-law's family began in 1986, and was successful in 2010, thanks to the Right to Information (RTI) Act. Strangely the title of the land still eludes them.

Says Nathu Gaikwad: "In 1986, I came to know that the land title of 74 acres belonging to my son-in-law's family was deleted from the land records office without informing them. Their signatures were forged and the new title owners were Anand, Birdi and Gokhale. I soon found out that our family members were not the only victims, but that these businessmen had allegedly indulged in similar fraudulent practices in the case of several original title owners and grabbed vast tracts of land.''

Mr Gaikwad visited the tehsil office, the Pune District Collectorate, as well as the Pune Divisional Commissioner's office several times, but none of the officers entertained him. Finally, he knocked at the door of the high court, which gave a verdict in 1988 in favour of his son-in-law's family, directing the divisional commissioner to retain the original title of the land.

"However,'' says Mr Gaikwad, "to our utter disbelief, after about three months, the high court order was thrown to the winds by a letter fromtehsildar of Maval stating that the land title should be reverted back to Anand, Birdi and Gokhale, as the matter was pending in the district court.''

Mr Gaikwad again went from pillar to post trying to meet officials in the collector's office and the divisional commissioner's office. "We were asked to give bribes if we wanted our original title back. Some land estate agents also approached us, saying that we should ask for adequate compensation as the land title is now a foregone conclusion. We decided to fight it out without bowing down to any threats or paying any bribes.''

Finally, after a long wait, it was the RTI Act that turned out to be Mr Gaikwad's saviour. "I had never used this Act, but when I came to know about its power, I invoked section 6 of the RTI Act and asked for a copy of the official communication from the tehsildar's office which had superseded the high court order and the document showing that the matter was resting with the district court, on the basis of which the land title was transferred back to the three businessmen.''

He filed an application with the Public Information Officer (PIO) of Maval taluka on 8 July 2009, then made his first appeal before the tehsildar (appellate authority) on 30 September 2010. Quite predictably, the PIO in the Pune District Collectorate, as well as the appellate authority, denied information to Mr Gaikwad, saying that the relevant papers were "missing".

Undeterred, Mr Gaikwad filed a second appeal before State Information Commisisoner Vijay Kuvlekar, on 18 May 2010, protesting against the "missing'' papers and the violation of the high court order. Mr Kuvlekar ordered the officer to produce the papers to prove why the land title was changed despite a high court order, and to establish that the matter was pending with the district court. If the papers were not available to show proof, the divisional commissioner should file a criminal complaint against the officers responsible for these vital "missing papers'' and for indulging in change of title without "proof''.

As a result of Mr Kuvlekar's order, the big lie was revealed. The supposed letter written by the tehsildar, overruling the HC order, turned out to be fake and forged. Also, a document which claimed that the matter rested at the court of Joint Civil Judge, senior division, Pune, was also a fake.

The land title has not yet been returned to the Ghare family and Mr Gaikwad is continuing his fight for it. Pune's RTI activists, led by Vijay Kumbhar, are helping him to take the case onward to a logical end. Mr Gaikwad's struggle is an example for all who are victims of land-grabbing and to use the RTI route to get vital information that is critical in battle.

Vijay Kumbhar, the RTI activist, says: "RTI activist Satish Shetty was killed because of the information he procured of massive land scams in Talegaon and Lonavala. The land sharks in Pune district are ripping off original land titles, but if more and more farmers invoke the RTI Act, just like Mr Gaikwad has done, it will go a long way to curb this fraudulent practice that has reached gigantic proportions.''

Mr Gaikwad's almost single-handed fight, is proof (if ever one was required) of how the Right to Information empowers all citizens, including those who may not be literate in the conventional sense of the term.

(Vinita Deshmukh is a senior editor, author and convener of Pune Metro Jagruti Abhiyaan. She can be reached at vinitapune@gmail.com.)