Thursday, February 11, 2016

Gujarat Information Commission "sitting" on RTI review for three months: Plea on Banaskantha flood relief scam

Banaskantha floods, July 2015
By Pankti Jog*
On one hand, the Gujarat government is selling big dreams of “digital India” through the Digital Saksharat Abhiyaan (DISHA), but, on the other, a Dalit RTI activist from Banaskatha district is waiting for information related to flood relief beneficiaries for the last four months, and is being pressured to withdraw his application by anti-social elements involved in corruption.
Harkhabhai Parmar, filed his RTI on October 12, 2015, when India was celebrating the 10th anniversary of the Act, and the Prime Minister in his address to Chief Information Commission’s (CIC’s) conference appealed for disclosures.
Parmar’s application had sought information regarding the criterion for the selection of beneficiaries, the list of beneficiaries, and the benefits received. He had also sought information on action taken on a complaint filed earlier regarding misappropriation in relief distribution by him and his friend Ratansinh with the taluka development officer (TDO) office as well as the chief minister’s office (CMO).
Banaskantha district is one of the four in Gujarat which received heavy floods in July last year. The Government of India announced a package of Rs 300 crore, which was supposed to be distributed through the state machinery. Villages were surveyed for identifying beneficiaries for different types of relief, like damage to houses and crops, soil erosion, cattle fatalities and cash dole.
Harkhabhai observed that many people, who are eligible for the relief, were not included in the survey, and many received huge relief though their houses hardly suffered any damage. He and his farmer friend Ratansinh brought this to the notice of the village sarpanch, but the TDO who laughed at them. Hence, they decided to go the RTI way.
Within three days of filing the RTI, on October 15, 2015, Ratansinh was fatally attacked by four persons. He was badly injured and died before his son could take him to the hospital. Two was of the accused were arrested, but are out on bail.
The attack took place after a few persons, said to be close to the sarpanch, tried to offer huge bribe to Harkhabhai and Ratansinh. They refused, and vouched that until all the affected persons received justice in this matter, they would not even touch any cheque offered by by the TDO.
Following the incident, Harkhabhai filed a complaint with the Gujarat Informatiion Commission (GIC) and requested for out of turn hearing. Three months have passed, neither the GIC has called for the hearing, nor has it given ex-parte order for disclosure of the list of beneficiaries and the benefits given.
The Mahiti Adhikar Gujarat Pahel (MAGP) helpline tried to contact the taluka development officer (TDO) to inquire about the progress in the RTI application process. TDO said, “I was on leave, now I shall look into pending RTIs, there are many on my table.”
A complaint was also field with the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), and a notice was issued to the state government. The state government filed a report, which reportedly said “Ratansinh was not RTI an activist” and he was “not murdered”, but died of an accident. This is what the DSP said on telephone. A copy of the reply filed by the state government, however, is yet to be received.
The People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL), MAGP, Paryavaran Mitra, Gujarat Lok Samiti and many others, meanwhile, have written to the district collector, Banaskantha, requesting for dislcosure of the list of beneficiaries in the village. However, there is so far no response, even though this information falls under the proactive disclosure category, which needs to be disseminated among people/affected people and needs to be put in public domain.
“Why are they hiding this information? What is the reason, as per your opinion?”, I asked Harkhabhai. His reply was: “This information will prove fatal to corrupt people. Huge corruption has been done by the sarpanch, and a few people who are close to the taluka panchayat president.”
He added, “More than one beneficiary risiding in one house have received relief money in several cases. Hence they do not want to disclose the names of the beneificiaries. They want me withdraw my application.”
“I was offered two houses of Indira Awas and Sardar Awas few days back”, he said, adding, “They are also pressurizing me by sending various people to my house.”
Part of the constituency of Shankar Chaudhary, minister of state for urban housing, health and family welfare and transport, officials of the area are reluctant to disclose information. “Officials directly tell me that I would not get any information at any cost”, Harkhabhai says.
Meanwhile, civil society organizations have decided to go in for a massive RTI drive in Banakantha district, so that more and more people come foreward to raise their voice.
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*Mahiti Adhikar Gujarat Pahel, Ahmedabad

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