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The RBI and the ministries have already stepped up their investigations against the MLM company
It seems that pressure is mounting on the government to tighten the noose around the dubious multi-level marketing (MLM) company Speak Asia online Pte Ltd. The Reserve Bank of India (RBI) and the Income-Tax (I-T) department have already initiated investigation against Speak Asia and bank accounts of the company's franchisees have been frozen.
Sources have confirmed that the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) is investigating the operations of the online survey company, which was promising Rs500 a week for just filing online surveys. The investigation would mainly look into financial irregularities, money collection and remittances abroad. Meanwhile, other pyramid schemes are also making headlines with regularity.
Recently, the Prime Minister's Office (PMO) forwarded the complaints filed by Kirit Somaiya, former member of parliament (MP) and national secretary of the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) along with the complaints of party MPs Prakash Javdekar and Hansraj Ahir, to the home secretary, finance secretary and ministry of corporate affairs (MCA). In a release, Mr Somaiya said the MCA and the Securities and Exchange Board of India (SEBI) have intimated him that they have started an inquiry and investigation into the functioning of Speak Asia.
Moneylife and its affiliate Moneylife Foundation, a not-for-profit organisation which promotes financial literacy, had sent a representation, dated 17 May 2011, to the prime minister, urging him to completely ban MLM companies in India or to bring them under the regulation of either the RBI or SEBI. We also requested urgent intervention to investigate Speak Asia for the ambiguities prevailing over its business model and source of funding. (http://foundation.moneylife.in/promotion/speakasia/index.html)
Moneylife columnist Veeresh Malik also filed a Right to Information (RTI) query on 14th June with the PMO, seeking to know the action taken on the representation sent by Moneylife.
The ministry of corporate affairs had earlier said that it would not take any action against the survey company. "Speak Asia is not registered in India so we cannot initiate any investigation against it. MCA does not have any database of the company," corporate affairs secretary DK Mittal had told media persons.
Experts point out that since the PMO has also forwarded the complaints to the ministry of corporate affairs, it remains to be seen what action the ministry will take, as they had earlier shown their inability to initiate any investigation.
SoSasta.com, which offers discount deals to over 3 lakh users in 11 cities across India, says its entire database was 'accidentally' leaked over the Internet and indexed by Google
Groupon, the world's largest daily deals website, has admitted that a security issue has affected subscribers of its Indian unit SoSasta.com.
This was discovered by Australian security consultant Daniel Grzelak, who found the entire user database of SoSasta.com was accidentally published over the Internet and even indexed by Google. The database contained email addresses and clear-text passwords of around 3 lakh users of SoSasta.com.
Mr Grzelak told Risky.Biz portal, which deals with such security issues, that he was searching for publicly accessible databases containing email addresses and password pairs, when he stumbled upon the user database of SoSasta.com. He said, "A few hours and tweaks later, this database came up. I started scrolling and scrolling and I could not get to the bottom of the file. Then I realised how big it actually was."
According to the report on Risky.Biz, Mr Grzelak contacted the portal to seek advice on disclosure. The website, in turn contacted Andrew Mason, chief executive of Groupon. "The database was removed immediately and the company has launched an internal investigation to find out how it wound up publicly accessible in the first place," said the report on Risky.Biz. "Groupon is notifying all its SoSasta users of the incident and is advising them that the passwords they used on the website are now compromised and cannot be relied upon to secure other accounts."
According to the ZDNET India IT blog, Groupon sent an email to local users on Monday, which reads: "Over this weekend, we've been alerted to a security issue potentially affecting subscribers of Sosasta. We wanted to let you know that the issue has been brought under control and your accounts are secure. However, as a precautionary measure, we recommend that you change your SoSasta password immediately, by visiting the SoSasta website[...] Please be aware that none of your financial information (Credit Card, Debit Card, NetBanking etc) has been compromised since this information is not stored on SoSasta, as per law."
Chicago-based Groupon bought SoSasta.com from Kolkata-based Friday Media Pvt Ltd for an undisclosed amount, in January. At present, SoSasta.com offers discount deals in 11 cities (Mumbai, Pune, Kolkata, Hyderabad, Delhi, Bengaluru, Chennai, Chandigarh, Ahmedabad, Jaipur and Nagpur).
What the external affairs ministry has been unable to achieve in terms of facilitating Indians abroad on RTI—to make online RTI applications and also pay the fees online—the Municipal Corporation of Delhi has successfully introduced this facility
Last week, I had written about how Indians living abroad are finding it difficult to file RTI applications to various government departments back in their home country, thanks to red tapism. I had highlighted how despite the Department of Posts (DoP) making arrangements with Axis Bank for online payments for overseas online RTI applications, the finance ministry and the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) are sitting on the issue and have yet to take a decision. (Read: "Indians living abroad keen to use RTI, but the government isn't making it easier")
In the meanwhile, very quietly, yet actively, the Delhi Municipal Corporation (MCD) has created history, by becoming the first to facilitate online RTI applications along with online payment of fees through credit or debit card. This is one of the most pro-active examples of a public authority (meaning government department, in RTI parlance) responding to citizens' issues, in line with the principles of transparency and good governance, the very fundamentals of a healthy democracy, facilitated by the Right to Information (RTI) Act.
How did it all begin? Dr RC Patnaik, chief of the information technology department of MCD, who has been designated to bring in e-governance reforms in the civic body says, "The MCD has around 200 public information officers (PIOs) and we receive a lot of RTI applications everyday. Since most citizens are not aware about the correct PIO to whom they should address their query, transferring the applications to the appropriate PIO was a cumbersome job. Sometimes it would take a month to pass on such applications to the right desk. As a result, central information commissioner Shailesh Gandhi would admonish us for defaults and penalise us too.''
This set Dr Patnaik thinking about an online option, at the behest of the municipal commissioner. "So a few months back, I hit upon the idea of scanning the RTI applications which came to the wrong PIO and sending it to the right one by email. Although it temporarily solved much of the problem, it still was not clear sailing.''
Dr Patnaik's IT team then began exploring the possibility of filing RTI applications online, along with online payment of the Rs10 fee for every RTI application under Section 6 of the RTI Act. The hurdle of online payment was solved through an official arrangement with Axis Bank. The bank was hesitant initially, as this is a very small amount. But since property tax is paid online through Axis Bank and that is a major sum in a city like Delhi, it agreed to process the small transaction also, as a goodwill gesture.
Dr Patnaik explained, "The RTI applicant has to pay Rs11; the one rupee extra is the transaction charge.'' He was not sure whether MCD would be criticized for the one rupee extra charge. However, the central information commissioner put this matter to rest saying, "Any RTI applicant has to either pay for the postage or fuel if he or she goes personally to MCD to file the RTI application. In the case of online application you pay just one rupee, which in fact saves precious time and travel expenses for citizens.'' Mr Gandhi congratulated the MCD and expressed the hope, "Now, every municipal corporation should follow suit.''
In just five days after initiating the online RTI application facility, the MCD received 71 applications from citizens in Delhi and two from people in Hyderabad and Ahmedabad. "In this technological era, we are committed towards e-governance for the comfort of citizens,'' Dr Patnaik says.
We gather from the website, www.mcdonline.gov.in, "The Municipal Corporation of Delhi is among the largest municipal bodies in the world, providing civic services to an estimated population of 13.78 million citizens in the capital city. It is next only to Tokyo in terms of area."
To enter the RTI application area, click on the sub-category "RTI online'' on the homepage of the MCD website. On the right side you will see the online RTI application. It has also uploaded other forms related to RTI applications.
Now that MCD has set a precedent, all municipal corporations must follow suit. "Every government department can now have online RTI applications and we are ready to guide and help them.''
In another first, the Pune Municipal Corporation (PMC) has over the past two years, set 3pm to 5pm, every Monday, for any citizen to conduct inspection of files, as allowed under Section 4 of the RTI Act. He or she can visit any of the departments of the PMC and check the files required. This is over and above any other time that citizens can inspect files during working hours. PMC was also the first to set up an RTI library, which has been named after renowned journalist-activist Prakash Kardaley. All these efforts are the result of rules under Section 4 which focus on suo moto disclosure by the government department.
MCD's endeavour on online RTI applications is a big boost for citizens' participation and it should not remain a solitary example. RTI activists in every city must move to shake up the civic bodies in their areas, and insist that they follow the MCD initiative.
Do write to me for any help regarding this at [email protected],com.
(Vinita Deshmukh is a senior editor, author and convener of Pune Metro Jagruti Abhiyaan. She can be reached at [email protected].)