Citizens' Issues
Sterling examples of inspection of documents under Section 4 of RTI Act

How information procured under the law led to Dow scrapping its proposed plant near Pune and a road supposed to run through a heritage botanical garden was abandoned

Last week, we discussed the contents of Section 4 of the Right to Information Act (RTI). Here are two classic examples which will elaborate on the power of inspection of documents in government offices.

Can a multinational company (MNC) be put on the mat? Can a municipal corporation be made answerable for a thoughtless decision? Yes, under Section 4, these questions were not only answered, but the information obtained in the process, quite literally, shook the powers-that-be!

Case I: Dow Chemical bites the dust..and how!

Sometime in 2008, a few activists who came to see me in my office stated that I should write against Dow Chemical which was then setting up its chemical plant, christened by Dow as a 'Research & Development Centre' in Chakan (which is a suburb of Pune and is now known as a premier automobile hub with multinational automobile manufacturing plants set up here). They argued that since Union Carbide (which was responsible for the world's worst industrial disaster in Bhopal) is a subsidiary of Dow, it had no moral right to be here. Since the buzz against this company grew stronger among villagers of Shinde Vasuli (the actual site of the plant where it was allocated 100 acres, mind you just for a Research & Development Centre as it claimed) and activists led by Justice BG Kolse Patil, I decided to procure information about the exact nature of the plant here.

When I called up the secretary of the Maharashtra Pollution Control Board (MPCB) in Mumbai and asked him for documents showing the nature of permissions given to Dow, he flatly refused saying he has no information on this, and that if I am so interested I should invoke the RTI Act.  Obviously, Dow's entry here was a high level political decision and this bureaucrat did not want to get into trouble.

I conducted inspection of files (under Section 4) at the office of the secretary in the environment department at the Mantralaya in Mumbai; at the MPCB regional office in Pune (as it gives environmental clearances), and at the Maharashtra Industrial Development Corporation (MIDC) regional office in Pune (as it allocates land). Just a week before, Dow had released full-page advertisements in most English and Marathi dailies, stating that its plant here is a purely Research and Development Centre, that it would enhance social environment and give jobs to 600 odd scientists.

The documents procured under Section 4, revealed otherwise. The MPCB documents showed that it had been given permission to set up a 'manufacturing' unit and not just an R&D centre; Dow mentioned a list of 60-70 chemicals which it would use for the sake of 'research', of which more than 20 were hazardous under Schedule I of the Environment Protection Act. Despite the use of these chemicals, no environmental clearance certificates had been sought from the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) and no thorough questions were asked on how safely the company would dispose off the effluents.

Also, documents revealed that MPCB had flouted its own River Regulation Policy wherein no chemical plant is permitted within 2km of major rivers of Maharashtra. In this case it was the Indrayani River-its major tributary, the Shuda River, flowed past the chemical plant site at a distance of only 1.3 km. Another document revealed that the company had cut 14,800 trees on the site. Worst, another document showed that the National Chemical Laboratory (NCL), the premier government laboratory of India, had given a clean chit to the MNC on the basis of a four-page amateurish 'essay' written by Dow (no detailed project report was available).

Armed with these ground realities, I disseminated the information to the activists and villagers, besides holding a press conference, and telling them that this was the ammunition that they should use to question the authorities. The chronology of events that followed is a huge story in itself, suffice to say that it metamorphosed into a state-wide agitation (as the Indrayani River is close to the heart of the 'Warkaris'. (Warkaris are a vast rural community in Maharashtra, devoted to Lord Vitthal of Pandharpur and Alandi, from where the Indrayani River runs. It is also the starting point of the 250 km walk for more than 10 lakh Wakaris, on their pilgrimage across the state.)

The intensity of the agitation compelled the then chief minister Vilasrao Deshmukh to make an SOS call from London to ask Dow to stall construction. To cut a long story short, some three-four months ago, Dow issued an official statement saying that due to local pressure it was withdrawing from the site and returning the land to the government.

So, what did Section 4 do in this case? It was not the work, or magic wand of a journalist, but the provision in the RTI Act helped to bring the real details of the project to the fore, helping those directly affected by it to get an insight into the real facts and act. Until then, though the activists and villagers were knocking at the door of the collector's office, asking what kind of plant was under construction in their village, they did not get answers.

Citizen participation in good governance has to be two-pronged: First, to gather authentic information that can be used as a potent tool to enable you to fight for your rights or against any injustice. And second, to participate, that is become pro-active, in any issue that concerns citizens, like the villagers did.

Case II: How a 60ft road was to cut through a heritage botanical garden

Most of the times, even neighbourhood issues can be sorted out by procuring information through Section 4 of the RTI Act.

In this respect, sometime in 2009, a reader called up to say that during his morning walk that day, he heard that a road was going to be constructed through the heritage botanical garden near the University of Pune. I asked a colleague to conduct an inspection of files in the appropriate department of the Pune Municipal Corporation (PMC). The young bureau chief, Partha Sarathi Biswas, procured documents which showed that the municipal commissioner had gone out of his way-at the behest of a couple of councilors-to inscribe a road through the botanical garden (we procured the map which showed this) with his pen.

A municipal commissioner does have certain powers to make such modifications, but not without undertaking a public consultation and without assessing the real need for it, as a bridge just a few metres away from the garden was already doing the job (of connecting the PMC with the PCMC, Pimpri-Chinchwad Municipal Corporation, which was the objective of the new road too). Besides publishing the contents of the documents in our publication, we also sent a letter to the municipal commissioner. Residents of the area also signed a signature petition. Not that the road has been cancelled from the development plan, but at least it has not been budgeted for two consecutive years thereafter.

Next week: How to write a letter demanding inspection of files under Section 4 to the concerned authority.)

The writer is a senior editor, author and convener of Pune Metro Jagruti Abhiyaan.




6 years ago

"Worst, another document showed that the National Chemical Laboratory (NCL), the premier government laboratory of India, had given a clean chit to the MNC on the basis of a four-page amateurish 'essay' written by Dow (no detailed project report was available)"
What's the accountability of the NCL? In another country, some heads would have rolled. Instead, here they probably busy looking for more such "clean chits" to give.

Nagesh KiniFCA

6 years ago

Vinita has rightly highlighted the effective use of RTI Act to obtain relevant information.
From experience I can say seeking inspection of original documents and records derives better results vs.asking for written information. Those to whom the query is addressed welcome querists inspecting and collecting copies of relevant pages after paying for xerox charges. Their response is faster and less irksome.


6 years ago

Thanks for sharing this insightful experience. Its our moral duty as citizens to be aware & concerned about our environment. Infact i have always wondered why the Government does not publish the list of projects with its objective & time-frame for completion. Delays must also be accounted for as ultimately its the citizens who bear the brunt of such projects.


6 years ago

Great stuff, thanks, and more power to your keyboard!!!

Domestic car sales up 22.63%, bikes up 20.8% in February: SIAM

The Society of Indian Automobile Manufacturers, however, cautioned that car sales could moderate to around 14%-16% in the next fiscal, as the sector will have to overcome the challenges of high interest rates and rising commodity prices

New Delhi: Domestic passenger car sales touched a record 1,89,008 units in February this year, a growth of 22.63% vis-à-vis the figure for the same month of 2010, as customers advanced their purchases fearing a possible excise duty hike in the Budget, reports PTI.

According to figures released by the Society of Indian Automobile Manufacturers (SIAM), February sales bettered the previous high of 1,84,332 units achieved in January this year.

Total sales of vehicles across categories registered 21.32% growth to 13,70,932 units in February, 2011, from 11,30,037 units in the same month last year, it added.

The industry body, however, said car sales growth rates could moderate to around 14%-16% in the next fiscal, as the sector will have to overcome the challenges of high interest rates and rising commodity prices.

"At some point, vehicle manufacturers have to rationalise prices (to offset rising input costs). Moreover the base has been growing, so growth rate will come down," SIAM director general Vishnu Mathur told reporters here.

In the April-February period of the current fiscal, car sales grew by 30.34% to 17,88,503 units from 13,72,192 units in the same period a year ago.

Car sales growth in February was led by Maruti Suzuki India, which sold 87,851 units, up 19.01% compared to the same month last year.

Rival Hyundai Motor India's car sales were up by 4.84% to 32,503 units, while Tata Motors saw an 18.67% increase in sales to 27,272 units during the month.

According to market analysts, the high car volumes seen in February were mainly on account of buyers advancing their vehicle purchases, fearing a possible price increase if the government was to hike excise duty in the Budget. Finance minister Pranab Mukherjee however, retained excise at the same level at 10% duty on small cars and 22% on big cars in the 2011-12 Budget.

According to the SIAM data, total two-wheeler sales in February increased by 22.04% to 1,02,2272 units from 8,37,653 units in the corresponding period last year.

Motorcycle sales grew by 20.8% during the month to 7,76,051 units from 6,42,419 units in the same month last year. The growth was driven by market leader Hero Honda, which posted a 22.92% increase in sales to 4,29,928 units.

Bajaj Auto Ltd posted sales of 2,05,145 units during the month, up 16.74% vis-à-vis the same month a year ago.

TVS Motor Company reported bike sales of 52,650 units during February, up 14.33% from the corresponding month last year.

According to SIAM, total scooter sales during February stood at 1,85,460 units, up 27.15% vis-à-vis the same month last year. Market leader Honda Motorcycle & Scooter India had posted sales of 78,747 units during the month, up 12.77%.

Hero Honda's scooter sales in February amounted to 33,025 units, up 45.86%, while that of TVS Motor were at 38,115 units, up 46.71% from the same month last year.

Sales of commercial vehicles climbed by 10.49% to 64,057 units from 57,977 units in the year-ago period, SIAM said.

Medium and heavy commercial vehicles sales stood at 31,242 units during the month, up 11.37% from the same month last year. Light commercial vehicles sales grew by 9.66% to 32,815 units in February this year.

Three-wheeler sales totalled 49,082 units in February, up 24.03% from the same month last year, SIAM said.


NSE to offer clients SMSes, e-mails on daily trade

All investors who are registered on the NSE website would receive an SMS on the designated mobile number at the end of each trading day, giving a summary of the trading activity

New Delhi: The National Stock Exchange (NSE) has launched a new facility that would provide clients with details of their respective transactions through SMSes and e-mails on a daily basis. The move will enhance protection of investor interests, reports PTI.

The facility would help investors to verify details about their daily trades, directly from the stock exchange.

"A client who registers his cell number and e-mail address on the NSE website will now be sent details, about his trades conducted in the course of the day, the same evening," NSE said in a statement on Tuesday.

Till now, clients had to log on the website and were provided the details on the day after the trade was conducted.

"All investors who are registered on the exchange website would receive an SMS on the designated mobile number at the end of each trading day, giving a summary of the trading activity," the statement said. Besides, an e-mail would also be sent to the clients.

If a client is trading with more than one broker, they will be sent details for all the trading accounts.

NSE had facilitated trading through mobiles in September last year.


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