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The transparency sham

Prof Indira Hirway
By Rajiv Shah
It was nearly two years ago. A representative of Ahmedabad-based voluntary organization, Pathey, founded by one senior activist-turned-Congress politician, handed over to me during a session of the Gujarat state assembly a four-page folder which said, on the basis of a survey, that Gujarat government topped in transparency index among a group of 10 major states. The state powerdom, obviously, went gaga over it, seeking political gain. The index was based on queries regarding transparency in budget making. The survey was carried out in alliance with New Delhi-based Centre for Budget and Governance Accountability (CBGA). What seemed to provide credence to the survey was, it was sponsored, among others, by Ford Foundation and Oxfam India. Covering budget-making in Gujarat every year after being posted in Gandhinagar in 1997, I wasn’t just amused but irritated, as my interaction with top state guns was just the opposite. Indeed, there was lot of transparency when I began covering Sachivalaya for the Times of India in late 1990s, so much so that officials would willingly part with any data you wanted, even if these told harsh realities. But after Narendra Modi came to power in October 2001, things changed, so much so that inconvenient data began being increasingly suppressed. Only those data which seemed convenient to Modi was selectively released.
Recently, senior academic Indira Hirway told me how she was getting frequent calls from members of the Planning Commission wanting her to ask state officials to provide latest state growth rate data. All states had “reconciled” these data for 2011-12, except Gujarat. I don’t know the reason, but a Planning Commission source says, much against the loud claims of the state government of double digit rate of growth, state agriculture grew by 7.53 per cent during the 11th five year plan. A good growth rate, it also seemed to suggest that it was mainly because during one year the state agriculture grew by 27.05 per cent, but slipped into the negative for two other years!
I was instantly reminded of the Pathey survey during my during interaction with two Ahmedabad-based Right to Information (RTI) activists, Pankti Jog and Harinesh Pandya, who run Mahiti Adhikar Gujarat Pahel (MAGP), which provides hotline service to anyone wanting to know on how to make an RTI application. As I sat with them during a wintry afternoon, phone calls kept ringing. If ordinary citizens wanted to know how to make RTI applications, government officials tried to find out how to reply to particular RTI pleas. “There is no dearth of phone calls from officials, who wanted to be acquainted of the rules under which an application is accepted or rejected”, they told me, suggesting, awareness on RTI rules was lacking at all levels in the government.
The activists handed over to me a reply they had received to their plea to get details of tours of ministers and other officials, both foreign and domestic. Jog wanted these should be declared suo motu, as part of voluntary disclosure under RTI. She showed me a Government of India order, which said that half-yearly suo motu declaration, starting with January 1, 2012, be regularly made public and posted on the web, so that public do not need to resort to the RTI Act to obtain it.
Gujarat government, in its reply dated January 5, 2013, told Jog that though it had received the Central order, it couldn’t give the information or put it on the web, as the file on was “under consideration”. I wondered, if Gujarat government was so transparent, why this reluctance? Or, was it afraid of parting with some hard facts? It is common knowledge: Modi must ride the chopper even if he has to go just 50 km from Gandhinagar. Jog and Pandya told me that, voluntary disclosures, under RTI rules, should be made not just of official tours of ministers but also about any concessions the government may have given to entrepreneurs or organizations. As an example, they gave me an order by Gujarat information commissioner RN Das, dated June 27, 2011, where he quotes serial No (viii) of Section 4 (1)(b) of the RTI Act, which stipulates the need to proactively disclose “particulars of the recipients of concessions, permits, or authorizations” granted by a public authority. Jog had demanded information on mining leases in Porbandar, given by the state, and it took full four years for the state information commissioner to order it be given. “Eighteen months after the order, the government hasn’t provided any information, let alone put it on the web”, she told said. It wasn’t hard for me to guess as to why concessions to the Tatas’ Nano car project, or Ford, or other such mega projects aren’t made public either. The pretext is – it would harm the corporates’ business interest!
In her application dated July 9, 2007 to the district collector’s office, Jog had demanded “details of the all the leases/permissions” for building stone (bela patthar) mining in Porbandar district”. The information she had sought included name of the lease holder and contact details, the date of commencement of the lease, its expiry date, the date of renewal, the area for which the mining is permitted or lease is allotted, nature or type of land on which mining is allowed, the depth in feet till which mining is allowed, number of visits to the mining site by the government officers from the date of the commencement, and details of violations and action taken.
The illegal mining issue, if anything, suggests the travesty of transparency of Gujarat government. In mid-2000s, two IAS bureaucrats were posted, one after another, as district collector, Porbandar, Sheila Benjamin and VN Chhibber. Both exceptionally tried to fight illegal mining. At one stage Benjamin wrote to the government how mafia was running the show and she was helpless in the face of lack of support from the government. She was summarily transferred. Chhibber actually took action against the mafia. And, he was made to suffer – insiders confirm, a fake inquiry was instituted against him on the last date of retirement, December 31, 2011. As the story goes, Chhibber was posted in Porbandar with specific instructions from the chief minister’s office (CMO) to “investigate illegal activities” of Opposition leader Arjun Modhwadia, who hails from Porbandar. On reaching Porbandar, Chhibber found nothing against Modhwadia, but found a senior BJP leader very close to Modi deeply involved in illegal mining. This senior leader, incidentally, is now a Cabinet minister under Modi.
Travesty of transparency is strongly felt in budget making, too. As the last year drew to a close, I would often approach additional chief secretary, finance, Varesh Sinha – just promoted as Gujarat chief secretary – for details of the amount collected by Gujarat government as value added tax (VAT) and registration of real estate deals, as reflected in stamp duty collection. I told him, it would suggest the impact of the slowdown on the state economy. Sinha, without mincing words, replied he “didn’t have” these details. Once he said he would “look into the matter”, but he never did. I approached his junior, economic affairs secretary S Aparna. She promised me she would give me details. I approached her half-a-dozen times, and she would either say she had “forgotten” or I should approach her some other day. Finally, she told me to approach some other officials. Interestingly, these details come to her and Sinha on a daily basis and were part of their budget-making exercise.
In another instance, a senior state official would in the past gladly hand me over details of the amount spent by the state government under annual plan, for developmental works. For the last two years, things became difficult for him to retrieve the information because, as he put it, “Gujarat government doesn’t make available comprehensive details of the amount spent to all secretaries. Each department secretary is kept in the dark about the amount spent by all other departments.” Insiders, of course, tell me, how at the end of each year the government fails to spend huge sums, often up to Rs 10,000 crore, and all of it is shown as “spent” by “parking” it with government boards or corporations!
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https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/blogs/true-lies/the-transparency-sham/

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