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Though information was procured instantly from NHAI regarding action after the Neera River deaths, the officer insisted on writing an application under Section 6 of the RTI Act
The unique part of Nav Bharat Nagarik Manch’s agitation on Wednesday morning was inspection of files under Section 4 of the Right to Information (RTI) Act. Nav Bharat Nagarik Manch held a demonstration in front of the NHAI office before procuring documents under RTI. Nav Bharat members DVR Rao, Commander Ravindra Pathak (retd), Raja Narsimhan, Mahesh Tele, Omkar Virkar, Dhananjay Oval, Akash Jadhav, Mrs Sonawane, Hrushikesh Patankar and Prashant Salunke held the demonstrations.
We wanted to procure following documents after the horrendous Neera River bridge tragedy of 2nd November, which killed four young ad professionals from Pune after their car plunged into the river in the absence of a crash barrier at the tip of the bridge:
1. Correspondence between NHAI and Reliance Infra (or whatever are the names of the sub contractors) regarding action on the repair of the Neera River bridge after submission of the Inspection Report of Neera Tragedy by your Safety Consultants, sometime last week.
2. Correspondence between NHAI, Pune and the central authority of NHAI/Union Ministry of surface, road and transport, regarding repair of the Neera Bridge to make it safe, post the November 2 tragedy.
3. Correspondence of the last one year, from NHAI Pune office to Reliance Infra pertaining to the condition of the highway road constructed by Reliance Infra in the 300 km odd Maharashtra portion of the stretch of the Mumbai-Bangalore highway
4. Photographs taken out by NHAI regarding the condition of the Maharashtra stretch of the Mumbai-Bangalore stretch which is under operation, maintenance and security of Reliance Infra
5. Documents pertaining to action taken by NHAI against Reliance Infra in the past one year for shoddy work.
6. Unlike Section 6 of the RTI Act, where you need to write a formal application and pay Rs10 in cash or through IPO for a central government office, no formal application is required to inspect files under Section 4.
7. Yet, this writer sent a previous intimation to Rajesh Kaundal, Project Director, NHAI stating: “I wish to bring to your notice that a citizen desiring to inspect the documents containing information covered under Section 4 of the Right to Information Act, 2005, need not make any formal requisition under Section 6 of the Act because these documents should have already been published by the public authority so that citizens have ‘minimum resort to the use of this Act to obtain information’'
8. The contract given to Reliance Infra is clearly covered under `permits and authorisations' and hence is covered under Section 4. I intend to exercise my right as a citizen to inspect these documents in your office with my colleagues during our peaceful protest today at your office between 11 am and 1 p m. Please note that it is not necessary for me under the Act to give such notice before inspection of documents covered under Section 4 of the Act. However, being a responsible citizen, I thought it appropriate to intimate you beforehand.’’
Despite this, Mr Kaundal replied to my email request stating: “Section 4 (1)(b) is designed to ensure that public authorities disclose certain information which are important to the public voluntarily at every level of operation. Please log on to www.nhai.org for the information published by NHAI.”
“For any other information requested in specific, it is requested to submit application to PIO with requisite fee so that the same can be made available to you within the stipulated time period including inspection of the documents for extraction of the information if required by you. In case of any difference of opinion, it is requested to contact CPIO on the following address:- VS Darbari, GM (Coord) & CPIO, National Highways Authority of India, No.G-5 & 6, Sector – 10, Dwarka, New Delhi – 110 075.Contact No.011-25074100 (Extn : 1520). Email : email@example.com.’’
The writer wrote back stating: “The information I have asked for comes under Section 4 of the RTI Act. However, it is not put up on your website, as far as I searched. In the absence, of you not having uploaded it in the public domain, that is uploaded on www.nhai.org, I, as a citizen, is allowed physical inspection of files in your office.’’
However, no amount of explanation convinced Mr Kaundal, when this writer met him in the office. He insisted that I file an application under Section 6 of the RTI Act and he has no problem about providing me information immediately. Since he assured me of immediate inspection of files, I relented. However, I am filing a complaint to the Information commissioner today, for not providing me information under Section 4.
It is so exasperating that, even after seven years of the implementation of the RTI Act, neither do most public authorities suo motu upload information under Section 4 on their respective websites and hesitate to allow physical inspection of files by citizens.
Amongst the several documents I procured, the following one is very worrying, as the contractor now says all major bridges from Dehu Road to Satara need crash barriers for safety but insists that the NHAI must pay for the repairs. And therein lies the ping-pong game of NHAI Pune sending this request to the Delhi office.
The details are as follows:
PS Toll Roads Pvt Ltd, the subsidiary agency of Reliance Infra has sent a letter to Project Director, NHAI on 25th November, stating that raising and strengthening of the Median wall (wall in between the two bridges) to the height of the crash barrier, is required for all the six major bridges between Dehu Road and Satara and not only for the Neera River bridge. This was revealed through the documents procured under RTI Act by Vinita Deshmukh and other members of Nav Bharat Nagarik Manch, from the NHAI office at Warje.
The major bridges which need urgent repairs, in the light of the terrible tragedy of 2nd November, where four ad professionals died, have been identified by the contractor as Pawana Bridge, Mula Bridge, Mutha Bridge, Krishna River Bridge, Venna River Bridge and Neera River Bridge. Repairs have also been recommended for a series of culverts and small bridges.
The letter written by Nagendra Rai, officer of the PS Toll Roads Pvt Ltd to Mr Kaundal, admits that all the major bridges and some of the culverts are ‘unsafe’ for commuters. The letter states, “you are aware that gap between all existing minor/major bridges and slab culvert is not properly closed by cras barrier or extending medial wall up to the level of crash barrier and same is leading to unsafe situation for the traffic.”
Nav Bharat Nagarik Manch is shocked that there is no urgency shown regarding the repair of the Neera Bridge despite the most horrendous tragedy earlier this month.
Instead, the NHAI Pune has washed its hands up stating that such a decision can be taken only by the Delhi office of NHAI. The reason being the statement in the letter in which Rai states, “As per schedule B of Concession Agreement, no scope is defined for improvement/strengthening of the median walls for all existing major/minor bridges and slab culverts.”
This in effect means, that the Reliance Infra’s subsidiary agency, PS Toll Roads Pvt Ltd, is asking NHAI to provide the funds. NHAI Pune in turn says they are not the authority and so the letter has been sent to Delhi.
In the end, Nav Bharat Nagarik Manch is appalled that the final victims are citizens. It has begun the process of procuring documents under RTI to file a public interest litigation (PIL).
(Vinita Deshmukh is the consulting editor of Moneylife, an RTI activist and convener of the Pune Metro Jagruti Abhiyaan. She is the recipient of prestigious awards like the Statesman Award for Rural Reporting which she won twice in 1998 and 2005 and the Chameli Devi Jain award for outstanding media person for her investigation series on Dow Chemicals. She co-authored the book “To The Last Bullet - The Inspiring Story of A Braveheart - Ashok Kamte” with Vinita Kamte and is the author of “The Mighty Fall”.)