In your interest.
Online Personal Finance Magazine
No beating about the bush.
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].)
There is a way to fight corruption. We must begin by saying, “We will not pay bribes to get what is rightfully ours”. We must say: “We are prepared to wait till the bribe-taker gets tired of waiting for us to come up with the bribes”. It will be a long, hard haul in which every individual can and must participate
When the price of onions rose to an extortionate hundred rupees a kilo, some social activists went around advising people not to eat onions. If everybody stopped buying onions, demand would plummet and the racketeers who had jacked up the prices would be left with mountains of unsalable onions. They would be forced to cut the price to a reasonable level.
The idea was based on simple economic logic. But it also illustrates the power that lies in the hands of you, me and the man in the street-people's power, which is the strongest weapon in the battle against injustice, extortion, racketeering, political chicanery and that leviathan called corruption in India.
A septuagenarian Gandhian, with a late-awakening conscience, and a cross-dressing yoga teacher, have, in recent months, dominated the headlines, challenging as they have done the government's sincerity in cracking down on corruption. People like Anna Hazare and yogi Ramdev are useful in their own way. They occasionally turn the spotlight on the government and there is a public outcry, this time over the Lokpal Bill.
One need not be a cynic to say that Anna Hazare's efforts will not get results. We have the example of the Bofors scandal and investigation which, to quote Shakespeare's Macbeth, was "a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing".
To justify such a conclusion, one has to understand the nature of the beast. Corruption is the genus which has two main species.
The first, and bigger in terms of the money involved, is the bribe paid in order to obtain something to which a person is not legally entitled. Examples include the 2G spectrum scandal, the Harshad Mehta scam, Bofors, Narasimha Rao's bribery of JMM members of the Lok Sabha to get them to vote for the government. Only the rich and the powerful have the necessity and means to indulge in this species of corruption.
All of us are the victims of the second species of corruption which is graft paid to obtain something to which one is legally entitled.
Bribes paid to get a college or even a school seat; speed-money that we pay to hasten the process of renewing a driving licence and issuing a passport; the elbow-grease that smoothens the issue of a ration card, any type of permit and, horribly enough, even a death certificate; the fact bribes have to be paid to get anything from any bureaucrat and civil servant, from the panchayat office to central ministries in New Delhi-all are bribes paid to get things to which we are legally entitled.
Corruption touches every aspect of an Indian's life; it is like the mosquitoes; lorries belching lung-destroying exhaust on every road; the rains that do not come and the rains that flood thousands of acres; the flies that hover in their thousands over exposed food at roadside eateries-it is all-pervasive, encompasses all human activity in India and appears to be indestructible.
Will the war against graft ever begin? Are we totally helpless? It would seem so. But…
Hindu mythology has the concept of "shaapavimochanam". It means that every curse has an escape clause. We Indians are enduring the incredibly burdensome curse of corruption. Is there an escape clause?
There is, and it is the use of people's power. If we can bring down the price of onions by simply saying "No, we won't buy at this price", we can defeat the corrupt vampires sucking the nation's blood. But a warning. It will involve very patient, hard work over decades, maybe even half a century. All of us can and must participate. We begin by attempting to "terminate with extreme prejudice" (as the CIA puts it) the second species of corruption.
We begin by saying, "No, we will not pay bribes to get what is rightfully ours". We must say: "We are prepared to wait till the bribe-taker gets tired of waiting for us to come up with the bribes". It will be a long, hard haul in which every individual action will help.
The war against the first species of corruption requires an army of dedicated experts-financial experts, chartered accountants, cost accountants, lawyers, judges, trained investigators from the police and security services. They have to accept that their main goal in life is to expose and punish corruption wherever it is found.
They could begin, for instance, with hunting for over-invoicing and under-invoicing in import and export transactions where the biggest leakages of foreign exchange take place, with the connivance of government agencies. Later, they could turn their microscopes on every transaction into which every government, central and state, enters. (The Raja Chelliah committee report on black money in India, published in 1986, is a good introduction to the mechanics of black money and corruption).
Somebody has to start a movement to initiate the war against both species of corruption. Perhaps it could be called the "People's coalition against corruption".
'Will you start the movement', do you ask? No way. I am a journalist. I will sit back and give advice.
(R Vijayraghavan has been a professional journalist for more than four decades, specialising in finance, business and politics. He conceived and helped to launch Business Line, the financial daily of The Hindu group. He can be contacted at [email protected].)
The Sea Link will cost an estimated Rs15,000 crore when it is completed in 15 years, and only a small number of people would use this facility. On the other hand, the Bus Rapid Transit System could cost only about a fifth, it would benefit almost all citizens in the city and would also help in times of disaster
Emerging Mumbai needed a new icon. The Gateway of India, built to commemorate the visit of Britain's King George V and Queen Mary to Bombay in 1911 has been the city's icon since, for the people of Mumbai, the rest of the country and the world at large. The Grand Indian Peninsular (GIP) Railway's Victoria Terminus, now called Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (CST), was erected in 1887 to celebrate Queen Victoria's Golden Jubilee, and the Bombay Municipal Corporation's headquarters, across the road from CST, has existed since 1893. These were icons too in the years gone by and they stand out in grandeur even today.
Travelers from abroad and folks from the Konkan, coming to Bombay by steamer, enjoyed the majestic view of the Gateway of India as they entered the harbour. The Victoria Terminus at Bori Bundar was a symbol of the grandeur of the GIP Railways. But emerging Mumbai, in this 21st century, needed a symbol of modernity, as the commercial capital of India and a financial centre this side of the globe, something that would go beyond the icons of British colonial times. Roads and bridges have been symbols of progress, ever since automobiles came into being in the early 20th century and they are growing in number, rapidly, even today.
With the growing car population trying to get through the Mahim Causeway, and many headed to the Nariman Point business district, it was felt that a new road be constructed across the sea, going all the way to Nariman Point from Bandra, where it could connect with the Western Express Highway, and have landings or connecters at Worli, Haji Ali and Napean Sea Road.
Ordinarily a sea link is an unromantic piece of infrastructure. It would come nowhere near the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco Bay, or the Brooklyn Bridge in New York. Luckily, the need for free movement of boats of Worli village fisher folk and flow of tidal waters and the Mithi River, necessitated the building of a cable-stayed bridge spanning 500 metres. The plan also necessitated providing two shorter cable-stayed spans, each of 150 metres, on the first leg of the sea link from Bandra to Worli. The Sea Link is now Mumbai's icon. It's a magnificent view, as one takes off from Santacruz airport, or travels along the Mahim Causeway, whether during the day or at night. And it has been appropriately named the Rajiv Gandhi Samudra Setu, after the former prime minister who opened the doors of modernity to the citizens of the country.
The four-plus-four lane Sea Link was planned at an estimated cost of Rs400 crore, but after much delay and minor realignments, it was completed at a cost of about Rs1,600 crore. Work on the next leg, from Worli to Haji Ali, is to commence by the end of 2011 and it is expected to cost Rs1,900 crore. Though average daily vehicular passage was low when it opened, the numbers seem to have stabilised at about 40,000 according to the current count. That's still far from the utilisation projected in the feasibility report at 80,000 for 2009 that was expected to grow to 1,20,000 by end 2011, by when the second leg was to be ready.
The interesting part is that the traffic count on Mahim Causeway before the Sea Link was thrown open to traffic, was about 1,40,000. Another fact is that the number of people using cars in Mumbai is only about 2.8% of the city's population and there are about 5.5 lakh cars plying on Mumbai roads. Considering that there is a reverse flow of traffic in the post-afternoon period, of near equal magnitude to that in the pre-afternoon period, only about 12% of the car population had been using the Mahim Causeway. Now, the Sea Link carries just about 3.5% of cars in Mumbai. Considering that there are quite a few cars-perhaps about 30%-that are registered outside Mumbai and ply here-only 2.5% of cars plying on Mumbai roads use the Rajiv Gandhi Samudra Setu.
These figures clearly tell us that, (i) only a miniscule percentage of Mumbai's commuting population use cars. (ii) Only a small percentage of the car population in Mumbai used the Mahim Causeway before the Sea Link was opened to traffic. (iii) Only a miniscule percentage of the car population uses the Bandra-Worli Sea Link. (iv) Until the entire Sea Link up to Nariman Point is completed, the benefit from the time perspective will not be significant to those using the Sea Link. (v) The number of cars traveling the entire distance to Nariman Point by road will be even smaller than the number crossing Mahim Causeway.
Leaving aside the fact that the Sea Link stretch beyond Worli is not there, and the traffic on the Worli Seaface and the congestion at Haji Ali, it is worth pondering over the matter of traffic congestion on the Western Express Highway and finding a remedy for that.
The entire four-plus-four lane Sea Link from Bandra to Nariman Point will cost about Rs12,000 crore. Add to this the Bandra-to-Versova 3.5-km link costing another Rs3,000 crore. At a cost of Rs15,000 crore, in about 15 years, you would be able to travel the 30-km distance in 30 minutes. It's anybody's guess how many people will use it, whatever the stretches there might be, even if it is going to be say 30,000 for each of the stretches of Versova-Santa Cruz, Santacruz-Bandra, Bandra-Worli, Worli-Haji Ali, Haji Ali-Napean Sea Road, Napean Sea Road-Nariman Point, the total touches only 1,80,000 vehicles. This is still only about 15% of the current car population registered in Mumbai, not to forget that only 2.8% of Mumbai's population travel by cars. This would mean that Rs15,000 crore will be spent on a mere 0.43% of Mumbai's population.
On the other hand, providing 200 km of the Bus Rapid Transit System (BRTS), along with adequate provision of space for footpaths and NMVs) would cost as little as Rs3,000 crore, take barely three to five years and would serve nearly 100% of Mumbai's population, who choose to use it for whatever distance, while 30 km travel will take about an hour.
It's not about this or that, but it is about prioritising choices, giving consideration to the duration of implementation of the project, the number of people who would be directly benefited, the cost of the project, and whether it would help in mitigating disasters and management.
While the BRTS lanes could be used daily by emergency services like ambulances, the fire brigade and police, and its availability would be invaluable in an emergency situation like the deluge in Mumbai on 26 July 2005, the same cannot be said of the Sea Link, which if flooded with cars could paralyse the city.
There's one more aspect that must be kept in mind as far as the Sea Link is concerned. MV Wisdom is not the only ship to have run aground in Mumbai in heavy rain, strong winds and poor visibility. But it is the first vessel to have floated to the shore since the Sea Link was built. What damage a ship like MV Wisdom could cause if it rammed into the Sea Link does not require much imagination. Providing BRTS would also help significantly in averting annual fatality of 4,000 persons on the suburban railway system in Mumbai that happens mainly due to overcrowding.
Do you not want to voice your concern on the priority that the government is giving to projects that will take a long time, cost a lot, serve very few, and would not be of much use in an emergency?
[Sudhir Badami is a civil engineer and transportation analyst. He is on the Government of Maharashtra's Steering Committee on Bus Rapid Transit System (BRTS) for Mumbai and the Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority's (MMRDA) technical advisory committee on BRTS for Mumbai. He is also member of the Research & MIS Committee of Unified Mumbai Metropolitan Transport Authority (UMMTA). He was a member of the Bombay High Court-appointed erstwhile Road Monitoring Committee (2006-07). He has been an active campaigner against noise pollution for over a decade and he is a strong believer in a functioning democracy. He can be contacted on email at [email protected].]