RTI activist Commodore Lokesh Batra uses RTI to make RBI act in public interest when a Supreme Court order asked 105 branches of leading banks in Noida to shift out from the residential zones they have ``illegally’’ occupied, setting off a panic among several lakh citizens
Imagine the bank which is in your neighbourhood suddenly decides to move to another location? Obviously, you would panic, particularly if you have a locker where you keep your precious jewellery and other stuff. This is exactly what happened when in December 2011, the Supreme Court ordered that 104 branches of 21 major banks which since decades, had ‘illegally’ occupied residential areas in Noida, shift out. The court ordered the Noida Authority to seal the branches of these banks if they failed to comply with the order.
Nervousness set in amongst customers who number nearly 10 lakh, resulting in panic emptying of lockers and in some cases, protests in front of some banks. The writ petition was triggered by a residential property owner, who gave his property on lease but it was subsequently rented out to a bank and another commercial outfit. At the fag end of this legal intervention came the Supreme Court judgment asking all banks in residential areas to vacate or have them sealed. The banks appealed for four months’ time to build strong rooms, etc, but since the Supreme Court did not acknowledge the time frame in its order, panic set in. Now, the next hearing is on 30th March.
What is interesting is that while the Noida Authority began following the SC order promptly to the extent of sealing three banks, no one thought of the poor, helpless customers who were at the receiving end; senior citizens would have to bear the maximum brunt of this sudden action. Leading RTI (Right to Information) activist of Delhi, Commodore Lokesh Batra intervened with the powerful and people-friendly weapon of RTI. His main concern was that peoples’ sentiments should be kept in mind before such a mass eviction.
2nd February: Commodore Batra sent an email to VS Das, executive editor, Reserve Bank of India (RBI), stating, “I am writing this with urgent plea for RBI’s intervention to assure safety of assets of customers holding accounts and lockers in Noida. You may be aware that about 104 branches of various leading banks are operating in Noida from residential areas for decades now. In a recent order, the Supreme Court has directed the Noida Authority to get these banks’ branches vacated from their present location. However, the time given is too less for these banks to find alternate sites… Starting 1 February 2012, the Noida Authority has started sealing these banks. This has triggered panic amongst customers as they are not sure about the safety and security of their bank assets and belongings kept in lockers. I submit you to issue necessary guidelines/instruction to concerned banks in Noida to ensure safety of lockers during their shifting process and other interventions to curb panic amongst customers.”
Predictably, there was silence from the RBI, so in the first week of March he invoked the RTI Act, to find out what action the RBI has taken after he shot off the letter on 2nd February. He also filed a RTI application to the ministry of finance to find out what action was taken of a similar letter written to it on 8th February.
Following were the revelations under RTI:
On 16 March 2012, information under RTI by the RBI revealed that “a copy of the email dated 2nd February 2012, had been forwarded to our Department of Banking Supervision (DBS), Lucknow, as the branches in Noida are under its jurisdiction. Copies of the said email had also been forwarded to Regional Director, New Delhi and Regional Director, Kanpur.”
The copy of the email forwarded by Deepak Singhal, Regional Director, Kanpur on 2nd February itself stated, “Please look into the trailing mail (Comm Batra’s). In co-ordination with the Lucknow office you may like to call a meeting of bankers having branches in Noida to see what can be done to allay the fears in the mind of customers of Noida branches. They need to be assured that their valuable in lockers are safe.”
Thereafter, RTI documents revealed that the Department of Banking Reservation, RBI, Lucknow, indeed held an ‘emergency’ meeting with the controlling heads of the 21 banks, after Commodre Batra’s letter and that too on the same day—3rd February itself.
(Incidentally, an official written by an assistant general manager to the chief general manager in charge of the Department of Banking Supervision reveals that
“These 21 major banks have 211 branches out of a total of 260 branches of 41 banks in Noida, i.e representating 81% of branches.”)
The internal document of the RBI states, “a meeting with the controlling heads was held in RBI, Lucknow on 3rd February… The issue of sealing of banks… was discussed at length.”
“Considering the panic in the public following the newspaper reports on the issue, the house resolved as under:
“The customers will be advised by the banks through email, SMS, notce displayed at the branches and personnel posted at the branches regarding the alternate arrangements made for the conduct of smooth banking functions including locker operations up to 5 March 2012 (now extended to 30th March), the next date of hearing/time given by the Supreme Court…”
The branches of banks affected by the Supreme Court order are: Allahabad Bank (6 branches); Axis Bank (5); Bank of Baroda (5); Bank of Maharashtra (3); Bank of India (9); Canara Bank (11); Central Bank of India (5); Corporation Bank (7); Dena Bank (2); HDFC Bank (18); ICICI Bank (6); Indian Overseas Bank (10); Oriental Bank of Commerce (25); Punjab National Bank (26); State Bank of India (35); Syndicate Bank (20); UCD Bank (2); Union Bank of India (6); IDBI Bank (3); Vijaya Bank (4); Union Bank of India (3).
On 8th February, Comm Batra also filed a RTI application to the ministry of finance, Department of Financial Services asking what action was taken on his letter in which he sought the government’s intervention in reducing the panic of the customers and in helping banks to get more time to shift their premises.
On 1st March, the ministry of finance sent a letter to the Public Information Officer, Reserve Bank of India, stating, “We request Reserve Bank of India to examine the matter and take appropriate action in this regard.”
Thanks to Comm Batra, the banks, since February, have been holding regular press meets/sending press releases assuring the customers that there would be no knee-jerk reaction and they would be amply informed through SMS and emails of the situation of their eviction and transfer to new ‘legal’ premises.
With many new faces joining the organisation, there was an urgent need to cut avoidable and ‘invisible’ expenses. The 13th part of a series describing the unknown triumphs and travails of doing international business in Asia in the seventies and eighties
When we managed to reach Kuwait, we found the airport was crowded like our own bus stands with people trying to leave the country. There was a great influx of foreigners arriving every day from Iraq who were trying to get back to their own countries. This was in addition to a whole lot of folks trying to leave for UK and Europe, anticipating the war may escalate into neighbouring areas, including Kuwait.
We reached Dubai a day later; after our internal discussions Vijay left for Agra while I delegated the responsibility of sourcing the new requirements from the market. We had sent a few trucks earlier and our accountant was happy that payments, too, were prompt and credited to our accounts.
I do not know how or when it started but we found that there was a growing tendency for government departments to call for supplies through tenders. It was not new as we had seen this before, but the only reason was that we did not have a responsible person to handle this matter.
It was just then, as luck would have it, I received a telex message from Krishnan, an old friend of mine from Calcutta. In fact, he was really a veteran in the field of steel, of which I had no idea worth talking about; he was well-versed in tendering and had extensive contacts in Hindustan Steel and many Japanese firms. Just as importantly, he was a senior executive working with VD Swami & Co, a leading export house, operating from Calcutta and Madras. He was a confirmed bachelor, a workaholic and a top professional of reputation, with unquestionable ethics.
We invited him to Dubai and he arrived three days later. We had one day of closed-door discussions that lasted past midnight. He was back on the job next morning and stayed with us in the guest house. After arranging for a permanent visa for Dubai, he was on his way to set up the Hong Kong operations, which, in the later years took him to obtain business from Burma, some supplies of which came from Thailand as well.
It would not out of place to mention that VD Swami happens to be a distant relative of mine. He had begun his career as a steel merchant; but he was much ahead of his time in vision and thinking. In fact, I have heard it said that when VDS, as he was popularly called, envisaged the prospect of exporting steel out of India, some disgruntled exporters, mostly the guys manufacturing or selling ‘gamelas’ reported to have commented: “Here we are unable to sell even the simple items like gamelas for the construction industry, we have people like Swami saying we should export steel”. It was not long before VDS became India’s first exporter of steel rails to Sudan. Rest, as they say, is history! I have always admired and adored people who had such dreams, because they worked hard to fulfil it.
I may not be far wrong in mentioning other moves VDS group made. If I recall the names correctly, VDS represented some Howrah firms like Thakurdas Sureka, Goldsmithy Works and so on, which were leading foundries in Bengal. Manhole covers made from these foundries hit the London market and supplies continued for many, many years. Also, in the later years, apart from being an export house, VDS moved on to become a manufacturing centre for boilers and other related equipments for oil refineries and I was thrilled to hear the supplies being made to Iran for their refinery. DN Singha and RSI were other foundries with excellent workmanship and reputation.
Krishnan, with his vast experience, was filling the void we had in our setup and, in order to meet the supplies for Iranian merchants, there were more new faces in the office, and our office was bursting at the seams and our budget going through the roof. There was an increasing gap between income and expenditure and a drastic cut in avoidable and ‘invisible’ expenses became imperative. Deadwood had to be removed immediately.
Reluctantly, Ajay had to take this responsibility; Mehernoosh Khoury, another workaholic with integrity, was doing a wonderful job on the local sales and our overall work moved towards great success.
Shipments from India were erratic due to delays in Bombay port; pig iron supplies were improving and some of the export houses who managed to get supplies from nearby sources, including Pakistan, made good profits. In the meantime, the Jebel Ali port, the world’s largest man-made port, capable of berthing 100,000 tonne liners came into operation, thanks to the great vision of Shaikh Rashid Al Maktoum. Even today, everyone in the Gulf would talk of Shaikh Rashid Al Maktoum with great love and respect. As he has passed away, we pray that he may rest in peace.
(AK Ramdas has worked with the Engineering Export Promotion Council of the ministry of commerce and was associated with various committees of the Council. His international career took him to places like Beirut, Kuwait and Dubai at a time when these were small trading outposts. From being the advisor to exporters, he took over the mantle of a trader, travelled far and wide, and switched over to setting up garment factories and then worked in the US. He can be contacted at email@example.com.)
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Chief Election Commissioner Dr SY Quraishi speaks at seminar organised by Moneylife Foundation and V Citizens Action Network
“People say that if elections are sponsored by states, it will make the polls free. That is not going to happen, “said Dr SY Quraishi, Chief Election Commissioner (CEC). He was speaking at a seminar titled “Democracy at Crossroads—Need for Electoral Reforms”, organised by Moneylife Foundation and V Citizens Action Network(VCAN).
Dr Quraishi said that the issue of unregulated money flow in elections is a pressing one. He said, “No candidate is spending white money, but black money. I don’t know how state sponsorship of elections will solve the problem. The moment a minister comes into power, his target is to recover the money he spent in the election. He convinces the bureaucracy to help him, and the people have to pay for them.”
The CEC said, “Speed democracy is not the answer. It is easy to call people out in the streets, but very difficult to send them back. You cannot forsake Parliamentary democracy.” However, he said that many small changes could be made which can make elections fair and free from corruption.
He said that it is important to get rid of criminals in elections. Dr Quraishi said, “People ask me, why can’t you debar a candidate from contesting. We cannot do that. The law must debar them.” Dr Quraishi said, “The law says is a person is innocent until proven guilty. I would like to ask, if fundamental rights are curtailed for under-trials, why not stop politicians who have criminal cases pending against them from voting and contesting in elections; which are not fundamental rights?”
Dr Quraishi said that people who file false affidavits must be punished. He also said that there must be a way to deregister parties, which are often only shell organisations with no membership and act as fronts for dubious businesses.
He talked about the Model Code of Conduct for the election candidates, and said that the punitive measures against defaulting candidates must be raised. “For example, if the punishment for giving false information was Rs500 in 1950, it must be raised to Rs20 lakh now,” he said.
“One of our officers once discovered that someone had thrown a lavish ‘marriage’ party for voters without the bride and groom, because otherwise, the cash was being seized,” he recounted. He said how money is transferred in ambulances, funeral vans, etc and how the electoral officers spotted them and seized cash.
He said, “We want transparency in the financial transactions for elections and independent auditing of accounts of candidates. We have asked the Chartered Accountants Association of India to come up with auditing standards, and I am happy to say that they have done so.”
He said, “The bureaucracy is everyone’s whipping post. But in India, entire elections are conducted by the bureaucracy, and when they are under the Election Commission, they deliver.” He talked about the various measures the Election Commission has taken to ensure fair polling. Dr Quraishi said how use of muscle power was curtailed by the Election Commission, like constant surveillance of some politicians and deployment of forces to stop violence.
The latter often led to tussles with the home ministry; because it involved making the police of every station being at the disposal of the CEC and to take orders only form the CEC; and deployment of paramilitary forces from private companies. He said, “Transfer of election officers six months before the polls must be banned. It is necessary to ensure free polling and stop states’ interference.”
He also talked about voters’ apathy. “What people don’t understand is the lower the turn-out, the easier it is for the criminals and dishonest candidates to win.” He talked about how use of face recognition softwares, in places like Manipur, to detect bogus voters had significantly brought down number of people who vote multiple times.
Dr Quraishi also talked about media coverage of elections. He said, “Media should show whether candidates are violating the code, because the government cannot be ubiquitous. It has worked beautifully.” He recounted how a candidate engaging in hate speech was pulled up by the Election Commission after it was shown on the television.” However, he said that paid news is a troubling issue which needs to be uprooted. Dr Quraishi said that government advertisements six months prior to elections must be banned, because it is wastage of public expenditure.
“When people say we should take lessons from other countries like USA or UK, I would remind them that while they took more than century to let women vote, India had granted that right from day one. Who is to teach whom?” He said that measures which can be adopted by other countries are not possible in a country as populated as India. “But through voters’ education and peaceful polling, we see very good turnouts and fair results. Peaceful polling has made sure that in the recently concluded state elections, more women than men came out to vote and decided the electorate.”
He said, “Lastly, I would say that the Election Commission must be given more independence. Just like the chief election commissioner cannot be removed from his post apart from impeachment, the same immunity must be extended to the other two commissioners. The government cannot make up its mind about debarring criminals from contesting in elections, and ultimately becoming ministers, but what stops them from strengthening the position of the commission?” For the same reason, he said that the funding of the Election Commission should come from the Consolidated Fund of India and be independent.
Dr Quraishi also talked about the Right to Reject. “If thousand people go to vote, and 999 people decide to reject, that one person, without even any voting will be the winner.”
The event was supported by around 24 non-governmental organisations (NGO) such as Indian Against Corruption, Karmayog, Loksatta Party and Janhit Manch among others. Eminent citizen activists spoke on various issues, and presented their memoranda to Dr Quraishi, which talked about the various issues that concern citizens while voting and the need for a better electoral process.