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Reveal concession agreement under public-private property project under GoI, rules Central RTI watchdog

By Our Representative
In an important move, the central information commissioner (CIC), the right to information (RTI) watchdog on the Government of India (GoI) and its agencies, has ordered, in a ruling, that concession agreement for a public-private partnership (PPP) project should be disclosed after “severing those portions relating to commercial confidentiality”.
While the order relates to an RTI query by senior activist Venkatesh Nayak of the Commonwealth Human Rights Organization (CHRI) seeking information from the Department of Ports, GoI, regarding Puducherry Port’s PPP project, this marks a break from the past when RTI pleas on PPP projects were set aside citing "violation" of business confidentiality.
It is not just GoI ministries and departments which would refuse information on concession agreement. The Gujarat government's industries department, too, has acted similarly saying this would "hit private interests."  Several RTI pleas seeking agreement with Tatas on the prestigious Nano project have been rejected citing confidentiality "violation". The Nano agreement with the Gujarat government is said to have meant concession to the tune of Rs 20,000 crore to the Tatas.
Nayak made an application seeking information on Puducherry Port as a “test case” after he accessed a letter the CIC had sent to the now defunct Planning Commission in January 2011, which said, “every PPP proposal be made public inviting people's comments”, all PPP agreements, including on special purpose vehicle created for the purpose of implementing PPP project should be treated as “public authority under the RTI Act”; and the Ministry/public authority responsible for PPP project should be “directly responsible” for making permissible information transparent under the RTI.
The Planning Commission, in its reply said, while it would seek “legal opinion”, but it would "allow" applicants to obtain concession agreements, maintenance manuals, maintenance programmes and maintenance requirements from the concessionaire.
Based on this correspondence, Nayak decided to seek PPP agreement of the Puducherry Port under RTI. While the first appellate authority rejected his request on the ground that the concession agreement contained confidentiality clause, the CIC, two years later, in May 2014, following the hearing on RTI plea, asked the department of ports to file a status report on the PPP project.
“During the hearing it transpired that the PPP had been shelved after prolonged litigation before courts. Yet, the department of ports pleaded commercial confidentiality against disclosure”, Nayak says, adding, however, he Nayak insisted that the information be released in “public interest”.
Finally, this led the CIC, a year later, in June 2015, to issue the order directing the department of ports to “disclose the concession agreement after severing the information related to commercial confidence.”
Interestingly, despite the ruling, Nayak has not yet received a hard copy of the CIC order. While the information has been put on the website, the activist says, “Strangely, the department of ports has also not responded to me either with the information required to be disclosed or its intention to challenge the CIC's order before the courts.”
Meanwhile, Nayak says, the Niti Ayog has replaced the Planning Commission, and he is still waiting “for the PPP agreement to reach me from across the Vindhyas”. He wonders, if the current review of the infrastructure projects will also lead to “greater transparency in all PPP projects.”

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