RTI activist Sanjay Shirodkar has been working to bring Mumbai International Airport Ltd (MIAL) under the RTI Act, since 2007. MIAL has resisted all orders, even going to the High Court on the matter. Shockingly, the public Airports Authority of India (AAI), which has a stake in the company, has defended the private agency. Similar battles are being fought in Bangalore and Delhi
One day, while waiting at the Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport for his cousin to arrive, Sanjay Shirodkar noticed a number of cars belonging to various 'embassies' parked outside. He asked security agency personnel and designated traffic police why the cars were allowed to park there for such a long duration, when other vehicles were not permitted to stop there for more than a few minutes, only allowing travellers to alight. But he got no answer. Mr Shirodkar was also hassled about the high price charged for mineral water at the airport stalls. That was back in 2007.
Mr Shirodkar proceeded to write a letter to the Mumbai International Airport Ltd (MIAL) as well as the Airports Authority of India (AAI) seeking information under the Right to Information (RTI) Act, about the mineral water price policy. He received a reply from the deputy general manager of AAI, quoting an internal note from the legal department, saying that "MIAL will not come under the purview of the public authority and thus the provisions of this (RTI) Act will not be applicable to MIAL.''
Mr Shirodkar says, "I was shocked that the public department, the AAI, which has a 26% stake in the public-private partnership (PPP) and has allowed the use of 2,000 acres of its land-which amounts to at least Rs50,000 crore-was actually protecting the private agency, MIAL, instead of monitoring it and ensuring that it performs its duty transparently, and it was encouraging the agency to keep information away from the public domain.''
Undeterred, Mr Shirodkar invoked a second RTI query on 15 November 2007 with regard to the rules for parking of vehicles. He asked:
> Is parking free for all embassy vehicles at all airports in India? If yes, then please give a copy of the government resolution (GR) or any such notification to show this.
> At which furthest point can embassy vehicles be parked from the terminus?
> Is there any privileged parking facility for embassy vehicles when the ambassador/high commissioner is in the car, or for the staff of the embassy as well?
> Please provide a list of all embassy offices and their respective official number plate details (by which they are recognise for privileged parking, if applicable).
The reply from AAI on 26 December 2007 said that embassy vehicles could go only up to the designated VIP area where they can park free of charges. This implies that they were not permitted to park outside the airport terminal for long durations.
This set Mr Shirodkar thinking about public-private partnerships which have become the backbone of several large-scale (read, large money), development infrastructure projects. More so in the case of airports, which are sensitive areas in the context of the threat of terrorism, how was MIAL flouting the basic rules on parking? He, therefore, decided to find out what concessions MIAL enjoyed from the state and central governments.
In an RTI query, dated 17 November 2007, Mr Shirodkar requested information from a number of related government departments at the Mantralaya state headquarters, including the General Administration Department (GAD), and whether AAI had offered/provided any discounts/concessions/exemptions/waivers to MIAL on interest free debt, entry taxes, property tax, lease of land, stamp duty and registration charges, change of land use, octroi and road cess, if any.
All departments kept mum for months, till a fortnight back, when the GAD replied stating that "MIAL has been given a stamp duty concession of Rs250 crore and it operates on 2,000 acres of government land.'' Now, is this not sufficient premise for MIAL to come under the RTI Act, with such "substantial funding from the government," Mr Shirodkar asks.
Interestingly, in the case of the Delhi airport, which is also privatised under the banner of Delhi International Airport Pvt Ltd (DIAL), Lt Col Anil Heble (retd), an RTI activist and resident of Delhi, filed two applications on 12th June and 15 June 2006 with the public information officer (PIO) of the Ministry of Civil Aviation for information related to the construction of a new security wall in place of the existing wall in Shahabad Mohamadpur village.
The PIO, Ministry of Civil Aviation, forwarded the applications to various PIOs of the Airports Authority of India, New Delhi. When Lt Col Heble did not receive any reply, he filed a complaint with the Central Information Commission on 19 July 2006.
The bench of the then central information commissioner (CIC), Dr OP Kejriwal, ordered that DIAL abide by the provisions of the RTI Act. The decision read: "The Commission heard both sides. DIAL responded saying that they were not a public authority as they held a 74% stake in the joint venture company set up by GMR. On making further inquiries, the Commission was told that the government had a 26% stake in DIAL.
"The Commission is of the opinion that a holding of 26% is quite substantial for any company and therefore, Section 2(1) which states that any body owned, controlled or substantially financed is a public authority, is applicable to DIAL and hence it is bound by the directions of RTI. The Commission therefore directs DIAL to provide for the directions of the RTI. This must be done within 15 days of the issue of the order.''
Mr Shirodkar had made a similar appeal to the CIC. The order of 11 June 2008 was predictably, ditto as in the case of Mr Heble. "In an identical case, in respect of Delhi International Airport Pvt Ltd (DIAL) the Commission vide its decision dated 17 January 2007 has observed that a shareholding of 26% is quite substantial for any company and therefore Section 2(1) is applicable to DIAL…'' Accordingly, MIAL "is covered under the definition of public authority and is therefore directed to furnish the information asked for within 15 days from the date of issue of the decision.''
In yet another case, Bangalore resident Benson Isaac also appealed to the CIC regarding the Bangalore International Airport Pvt Ltd and on 14 May 2008, KK Mishra, state information commissioner, Karnataka, gave a ditto verdict.
But, MIAL did not take the CIC's order lying down. Advocates Duttmenon Dunmorrset filed a writ petition in the Delhi High Court in 2008, challenging the decision of the CIC, and pleading that it be exempted from the provisions of the RTI Act since it has 74% stake in the PPP. The High Court recently directed the matter back to the CIC, Sushma Singh.
As of 16th May, Sushma Singh has sent the copy of the GAD's official reply to Mr Shirodkar; and has asked MIAL to reply on the 26% "substantial'' stake by the AAI in MIAL and that MIAL is using 2,000 acres of land belonging to the government.
This is just the tip of the iceberg in PPPs that have become an integral part of India's progress. Check out www.ppp.gov.ie for an idea of the magnitude of such projects. Surely, we need transparency, and not official secrecy, as has been the case since the days of the British Raj.
(Vinita Deshmukh is a senior editor, author and convener of Pune Metro Jagruti Abhiyaan. She can be reached at [email protected].)
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