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No beating about the bush.
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.
On this day, let’s take the time to remember HT Parekh, and say a prayer of gratitude for this towering man of finance and understand his farsightedness. HTP, as he was called by all, is inarguably the father of home finance or mortgage lending in India
Tomorrow, 10th March, marks the birth centenary of Hasmukh T Parekh (HTP as he was called by all). Every newly employed person who walks away with a home loan sanction today in 24 hours ought to say a prayer of gratitude to HTP. That's because he proved that successful mortgage finance was possible in an unregulated industry that is in the grip of land sharks and developers and where, even today, a full cheque payment is possible only in a relatively small number of projects-that too in the metros.
On this day, let's take the time to remember this towering man of finance and understand his farsightedness.
Until the mid-1990s, for a large section of the Indian middle-class, owning a home was a dream that could, at best, be met at retirement when one got a lump sum from a provident fund and gratuity from the employer. There were no HFCs (housing finance companies; banks could not lend for housing-neither to individuals nor to builders since housing did not qualify as an 'industry'). Worse, as much as 60% to 70% of the payment was in cash (until the 1980s in Mumbai) and later as much as 40% was in cash payment.
Combined with absurd income-tax rates (over 50% to 70%), it ensured that ordinary Indians could not aspire to own homes or apartments during their working lives.
It was in that milieu, more than half a century earlier, that HTP drafted his first proposal for a housing finance company for Harkisondass Lukhmidass (on February 16, 1951). The HFC would work on the lines of building societies in the UK. The proposal fell through. But persistence and perseverance in following his dreams was his hallmark. He would leave no stone unturned, no forum unexplored, no opportunity missed-to argue, discuss, persuade and cajole.
Two decades later, even as chairman of ICICI, he drafted another proposal- this time, for Bank of Baroda to set up a subsidiary for housing finance-and sent it for the finance ministry's consideration (July 25, 1973). He also kept pleading that banks be allowed to lend for housing.
But it was only after he retired from ICICI (as its executive chairman in 1976) that he could turn to his pet project with the single-mindedness that was required to turn it into reality and Housing Development Finance Corporation (HDFC) was registered on October 17, 1977.
What was revolutionary in those times was that HTP thought of lending against future income-income-gearing-at a time when incomes were really low. Even managerial remuneration was regulated by the Company Law Board; the limit for reporting salaries to shareholders under Section 217 was Rs36,000 p.a! Consumer finance was unknown in those days; all lending was capital-geared-in a capital-scarce economy.
That someone could hope to convince the government to allow him to set up a viable private sector company for home finance, in those days seemed more of a pipe-dream. But so convinced was he of the need for housing finance that HTP structured a unique company and turned entrepreneur to demonstrate that his vision could be successfully converted to reality. It is no wonder that former RBI governor Dr IG Patel wrote that HTP, was "justly acclaimed for his unique personal qualities and for his ability to turn dreams into reality (in a Foreword to the collected writings of HT Parekh)*. It is important to note that IG used dream in the plural-for there were several dreams-his own and those of others-that HTP was able to realise.
A different organisation
From its very concept stage, HTP viewed HDFC as meeting the need of small home-owners. At a time when Indians waited for years to get a telephone or a gas connection or even a Bajaj Scooter, HTP decided that HDFC would provide first-world service with a single point service to customers. If this won the hearts of borrowers and made HDFC such a rock-solid brand, it was his pragmatism in lending that helped the business grow and has, ultimately, spawned a score of mortgage lenders, despite the fact that proper regulation is still not in place.
In an interview to Moneylife magazine in 2010, HDFC chairman Deepak Parekh recalled how HDFC, along with Reliance Industries, were both considered 'bubbles' and that people wondered which of them would blow up. He recalled that HDFC succeeded, first, because of HTP's belief that "you can trust a middle-class person to repay" and the second, because of a decision to figure out risk mitigation systems that did not depend on the legal system. This included working a way around the high black money component in home purchases. Deepak Parekh recalls, "If we gave 70% of the white component (as home finance), it became so insignificant that we could not really lend. For many years, our lending limit was Rs70,000. The agreement value would be much lower than the actual transaction amount. So we introduced a system whereby our technical people would go to the site and come up with what we called the 'appraised value'. So we gave 70% of the appraised value, which should not be more than the agreement value. In effect, in the early days, we funded most of the agreement value and the gap was funded by cash. That itself was around 30% to 40%. That was the practical solution."
Had it not been for that pragmatism and HTP's personal reputation, several generations of Indians would never have owned an apartment. HDFC was the only housing finance company for over a decade and Deepak Parekh recall's NR Narayana Murthy (founder of Infosys) telling him, 'he had a wife next to him and an appointment letter in his pocket, but nowhere to live. He didn't know anyone when he walked in, or who to meet. His wife stopped him and asked him to say a prayer at the steps of Ramon House (HDFC head office). HTP's attention to detail went way beyond just the product structure and service. As a retail organisation from its inception, he wanted HDFC's corporate identity to have a symbol as well as a logotype. A symbol would transcend multiplicity of Indian languages. And, typical of him, he chose the logotype of HDFC in lower case then. Years later, it was changed to capital letters. The amount of time that he spent on designing the application form displayed his overarching concern for customer service.
*(Editor's Note: The two-volume set of HT Parekh's collected writings edited by Dr Nita Mukherjee is available for reading in the Moneylife Knowledge Centre).
The biggest ‘income’ from these privatised toll checkpoints is from the intelligence angle, both commercial and security. And you cannot put a number on the speed money being generated from these checkpoints
In the first part of this series (Delhi toll tax: Corruption, or daylight robbery?) we had said that the cause of some of the biggest and worst traffic jams is that there is a 'toll tax' to be paid to the Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD), by all commercial vehicles, including buses and taxis.
Readers were introduced to the background, and some of the numbers. That a Supreme Court of India judgement is involved suggests caution and respect, so this article has only quoted from it, as published by a Government document. In no way is this to be construed as a comment or challenge or any form of incorrect inference to the Honourable Supreme Court of India.
So what are the lacunae with the MCD Toll Tax, why is it such a draw, and what happens next?
To understand this some more, we need to go back into the history of road movements between Delhi and Uttar Pradesh as well as Haryana, the two states that surround Delhi, and technically speaking form part of something optimistically called the 'NCR' or the 'National Capital Region'. As far back as before the 1857 battles, not just the Brits, but also their predecessors, had realised that allowing free and fair trade between different parts of India was one sure way to unite the disparate entities that made up the Indian Subcontinent and beyond.
This could not be allowed-and is till today the root of why GST (goods and service tax) is not making its appearance, incidentally, though we can hardly blame the free-trade toting Brits for it anymore.
These restrictions became even more stringent, more so in and around Delhi after 1857, to keep an eye on possible freedom fighters, by restricting free unsupervised movement, on roads leading in and out of Delhi as well as other important towns- especially those with Cantonments in them.
(Which is why till today, Cantonment Boards can and do levy 'Vehicle Entry Taxes' on vehicles owned by natives, sorry, civilians). At the same time, they needed to move men and materials inwards too, especially to the fronts, as well as move exports out of India, so the system had to be flexible enough to allow them to do so when required.
One way was to make the Railways subject only to central control. This they achieved in the period between the two Great Wars, by unifying most of the State owned railways with their own-with a few notable exceptions. Gauges, rolling stock, finances, ownership-everything could be different, but the clause paramount was that goods and people travelling on trains were not subjected to State laws while onboard.
This simple and wonderful benefit accruing to the Nation exists to this date, and the few exceptions, like the Nizam's State railways and those belonging to some private players as well as some of the seaports, have now been well and truly co-opted after Independence.
Into one big Central Government entity-where the State Governments have nothing to do with the fiscal and administrative aspects of running the Indian Railways, or impacting those who use it.
The one big exception where even the Indian Railways had to bow down to the State Government was and is the surcharge levied on Harbour Line local trains crossing the Thane Creek railway bridge on their way from Mumbai to Navi Mumbai. This surcharge is added to the cost of a commuter's ticket and then used for nobody really knows what anymore.
Thousand of bridges are used by the Indian Railways, a few have been constructed across the Yamuna River by the Delhi Metro Rail Corporation, the Konkan Railways has a few hundred along its route-but only the Thane Creek Railway Bridge is blessed with such a surcharge.
Which, apparently, is one more reason why trains from Chembur and Panvel side heading towards Vasai Road/Virar are not being introduced, despite heavy commuter demand. Apparently, this is because it will impact toll collections, and we all know who is the "King of Tolls" in Maharashtra.
However, within the context of Delhi and its surrounding states, commercial road traffic was always a mess. This was tolerable for some time, but became increasingly difficult once satellite cities and industrial enclaves started growing with great speed near Delhi. In addition, most of the road traffic headed from and towards the North also started using Delhi-one reason being the central location, another being the intermodal exchange, and most important being the various "do number" benefits involved due to a multiplicity of tax regimes-Central, State of UP/Haryana, and Delhi. There were fortunes being made by arbitraging the numbers here, and while moving paper was one part, it also required physical movement of goods and people.
All this, and more, meant one simple thing-a large number of people and an even larger amount of goods were going to enter and exit Delhi. Every day. And where a rational society would see a need to place social good and progress over everything else, competing State governments saw an opportunity to generate revenue. For not just the States, but also more so for those who controlled the States.
So, local trucks, buses and taxies could not move between Delhi and contiguous habitats like Gurgaon, Noida, Faridabad and Ghaziabad-unless they paid huge sums for permits or operated illegally.
(For example, a few years back, Uttar Pradesh and Delhi banned each other's State owned buses from entering each other's "territory" on vague grounds, while private buses whizzed through merrily).
Even today, though some sort of agreement has been made between the three states, it is still far from perfect.
So what has all this got to do with tolls?
Just this-tolls on National Highways and other centrally-controlled roads can only be levied by and with the permission as well as involvement of the MoRTH (Ministry of Roads Transport and Highways) as well as the NHAI (National Highways Authority of India).
And that can only be done if some requirements in terms of road improvements or minimum adherences are in place. For that, for example, the toll collected by the private entity on the Delhi-Gurgaon Expressway is subject to MoRTH & NHAI. But the State government and their minions-they really have nothing to do with these collections.
And that was, to the best of their analysis in terms of trying to portray the State's interest, opportunity and revenue lost. They could collect tolls on State roads-but how many people used them? And then there was the rule that all toll roads had to provide for an alternate 'un-tolled' option-which was thrown out of the window, as the Mumbai-Pune route shows, where you pay tolls on both options.
Till our friends in Delhi saw their chance. And converted a judgement pertaining to reducing pollution into collecting money. It was as simple as that.
The fact that most of the money does not reach official coffers may also be incidental. But the amount is not.
Where does the extra money flow from, and to, then? This is how it, reportedly, works. Of course, we may be wrong, and there may be extremely honest people in this business too.
1) The contract is awarded on a 'winner take all' basis for a fixed sum per month, amount locked in for 3 years, for all 121 entries into Delhi. With efficient cartels controlling the whole process, the bids are kept artificially low, and then the whole business is divided. Entry points, timelines, everything. Something like how collections are divided at religious places between multiple claimants.
2) The collection is supposed to be done in a systematic manner, so that a track is kept of how many vehicles are paid how much, which could lead to possible re-negotiation of contracts to benefit the Government. In reality, it is bits and pieces of paper, and that's it. Sometimes no paper, too. Stand at the borders at night and see the fun and games as some pay, some are waved through, and some negotiate. Openly.
3) There is now a "reverse" entry tax for vehicles entering UP too, which is even higher than the one charged for entering Delhi, though it seems to work on some unknown process so far. The boards announcing rates are not visible. But drivers tell me it exists and again, one has seen bits and pieces of paper pasted on to windscreens-of course, there are the long queues and wooden shacks where also checked are the amazing "Form 38"s. (The Form 38 is an Uttar Pradesh speciality, extremely draconian).
4) Taking entry taxes from buses and taxies, especially city buses (stage carriages) and seat-basis share cabs, increases their cost per head by anything between Rs3 and Rs10 per person. This is in addition to the costs of multiple permits required for Delhi, Haryana and UP. That's one reason the ownership and extensive usage of private vehicles is not going down. Apart from the sociological aspect, there is good money to be made for filling stations too.
5) The immense traffic jams caused at these entry tax points breed a whole new category of crimes and criminals. At some borders it is unsafe to move during late evening hours, since there appear to be a whole lot of junkies and drunk people around too. Likewise, these borders are where you go for your narco and booze fix, but that's been the way it is for decades now, business as usual-can't really blame it on the "toll".
6) Pilferage of goods from trucks and baggage from buses is rampant, though seldom reported, as it is usually petty and non-violent. If you value something, just hold on to it, seems to be the logic. This, again, has been rampant for decades-again, not toll-dependant.
7) Yes, the police are present there too, and are observed acting as people who assist the toll operators rather than assist the users. There is also some reportage that an "escort fee" is levied, unauthorised, for permitting due safety of vehicles through all traffic zones.
However, the biggest income, which is not something that a number can be put on, is from the intelligence angle-both commercial and security. Thanks to the privatisation of collection of tolls at all entry and exit points in and out of Delhi, it is clear that one private agency which has never had its antecedents checked and is willing to do anything for money, will be in the know on everything that enters and exits Delhi by road. At a modest estimate, given the circumstances, it seems that the real income is by monetising this information to whosoever needs it. And before this is dismissed as just another bit of sensational reportage, think about this -the post for actually collecting the tolls is often auctioned. In other words, the person who collects the toll, often pays for the privilege of doing so to the contractor at some checkpoints.
Where people pay fortunes just to keep track of truck movements in and out of Armed Forces bases, we now hand over this information on a platter, just because our state governments don't want to collect money themselves. Can you imagine, if the same thing had been done to telecom, then how much money some people, politicians and others, would have made? Oh, okay, they already did that!!
Not just that, but if one tracks the fortunes of the companies and persons who have got into the toll business (and before that, into the parking business) then some amazing numbers emerge.
More on that in another article, soon.