A couple of activists have spearheaded a campaign to make it more convenient 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 Commodore 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.''
Commodore 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.
Commodore 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.
Commodore 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. Commodore 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.
Commodore Batra then filed a complaint with the Central Information Commission (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.
Commodore 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 [email protected].)
Research suggests growing economic, commercial activities and price stability is attracting big developers to cities like Surat, Nagpur, Bhopal, Jaipur and Coimbatore. Estimates sales of Rs180 million in ten such cities in 2012
A recent report released by CRISIL Research, titled 'Real(i)ty Next: Beyond the Top 10 Cities of India', estimates the sales of new residential apartments in ten smaller cities at around Rs180 billion in 2012. Collectively, these cities will see a supply of 354 million sq ft of residential space in the next three years. Surat, Bhopal and Jaipur are going to profit the most, both in terms of growth and value appreciation.
In a teleconference on Wednesday, Prasad Koparkar, head-industry and customised research, CRISIL Research, said, "Price stability and growth prospects of smaller cities are attracting large real-estate developers. Developers are diversifying from metro cities with an eye on future growth." He said, as markets are more stable in these smaller cities, they have seen less appreciation in the last one and half years, and hence, the impact of RBI rate hikes will also be less.
The survey covered Bhopal, Bhubaneswar, Coimbatore, Indore, Jaipur, Lucknow, Nagpur, Surat, Vadodara and Visakhapatnam. While residential units saw a price appreciation of 25-30% in Delhi-NCR and Mumbai, the smaller cities saw a hike of only 10-12%. Among these cities, Bhubaneswar saw the maximum hike, whereas the least increase was in Coimbatore and Visakhapatnam. Most of this market is driven by purchases by end-users and not investors.
Vadodara and Lucknow, Mr Koparkar estimates, will see a maximum appreciation of 8-10% in two years, because of a higher demand-supply gap. On the other hand, Coimbatore and Visakhapatnam will see a moderate hike of 3%-4%. On the other hand, Surat and Bhopal will see more supply.
"The market in these cities is boosted by growing economic and commercial activities, and properties are very reasonably priced," Mr Koparkar said. "We are also seeing a growing demand for apartments, rather than standalone houses, with growing population in these areas boosting volumes growth." The demand is most for the mid-income segment, with 2-3 BHK apartments of 1,100-1,200 square feet area. On an average, these flats are priced at Rs2,000-2,500 per sq ft.
While big developers like Unitech, Ackruti and DLF are extending their presence to these markets, local builders still command the maximum space. As the cities grow, these local builders are also scaling up their operations. However, these cities face the same problems that the metros face—whether it is poor infrastructure or delay in getting approvals.
Due to the ban on exports, the country has excess stock of cotton and prices are falling. However, due to sluggish demand in domestic as well as overseas markets, the textile industry is suffering
In our earlier articles (Slowdown spreading across all core sectors in India: ) and (Sluggish demand impacts cement and realty sectors ), Moneylife had written on how sluggish demand has been impacting a number of industries.
Another major sector—the textile industry—has also been impacted by the same issue. The industry contributes around 14% to industrial production, 4% to GDP (Gross Domestic Product), and 17% to the country's export earnings. However, as per the IIP (Index of Industrial Production) data, the apparel index has declined from 182.81 in April 2010 to 180.61 in April 2011, a drop of 1.20%. There has been a slack in demand and cotton prices are falling. Garment export growth has not been great either.
In 2010, the Indian government responded to excessive exports of cotton yarn by imposing an export ban. The ban reduced domestic prices and enabled surplus stock to be consumed internally. This led to a fall in prices of cotton yarn. With the reduction in cotton prices, one would expect the industry to pick up, but there has been a fall in demand.
Sanjay Jain, managing director, TT Limited—a major player in the textile sector—told Moneylife, "There was an unprecedented rise in the prices of cotton mainly because of crop shortage in Pakistan and China in 2010-11, this led to a rise in prices across the value chain from yarn to fabric to garments. (The) government had abruptly stopped yarn export registration from 1 December 2010 which resulted in accumulation of cotton yarn. The same was only allowed from mid-March again. However, a supply overhang was created and (this) has led to sluggishness in the sector over the past three months—this is the key reason for sluggish growth in the sector. India is one of the largest exporters of yarn in the world and 20% (of domestic) production is normally exported, this sudden stoppage reduced market size by 20% and it wasn't possible for the domestic market to increase demand overnight. Yarn manufacturers have now cut down on their production and inventory cost."
He further explained, "(The) summer season is almost over, however, demand is expected to pick up in the festive season. This year a bumper cotton crop is expected across the world and this is expected to have a downward impact on the prices of textiles. So far, prices have corrected by around 25%-33% and some further correction is expected. This phenomenon will continue for 3-4 months."
A Rajkot-based cotton exporter (preferring anonymity) told Moneylife, "Prices have been crashing, as there is no demand in India as well as in the export market. When prices were high, manufacturers preferred polyester yarn over cotton yarn. 'Sankar-6', (a benchmark quality) in one month, has come down from Rs61,000 per candy (356kg is one candy) to Rs42,000. Prices are likely to fall further."
One would expect the garment industry to grow with the benefit of these reduced prices-but that does not seem to be the case.
Readymade garments account for almost 45% of total textile exports. However, Indian apparel exports could not keep up with the growth in demand from the US. The total apparel imported by the US from India grew by just 9.33% from $2,846 million in 2009 to $3,112 million in 2010, as per the US Department of Commerce. The total apparels imported by the US across all countries were valued at $63,105 million, which improved by 13.10% to $71,398 million in 2010. From January to April 2011, US imports from all countries grew by 13.56% over the same period in 2010, but imports from India grew by just 12.65%. This just shows the textile industry was not able to keep pace with growing demand, despite the fact that it has grown by nearly 13%.