By Rajiv Shah
It was February 2011. I was in the Gujarat state assembly, covering routine House proceedings. Mostly boring, as after sitting for the whole day, I wouldn’t get a story worth reporting, except for the usual BJP-Congress duels, which seemed to be happening more according to a written script. On one of these days, a good friend, Mahinder Jethmlani, running Pathey Budget Centre, a small state budget analysis centre in Ahmedabad, reached up to me with a colourful four-page folder.
It was the summary of a report prepared by the Centre for Budget and Governance Accountability (CBGA), Delhi, which qualified Gujarat as the most transparent of the 10 states had it surveyed. Titled “Transparency in State Budgets in India”, it gave a score of 61.7 to Gujarat for budget transparency, as against the average of 51.6 for the 10 states it surveyed. The score of other state was Madhya Pradesh (60.2), Andhra Pradesh (51.8), Chhattisgarh (56.1), Odisha (52.6), Assam (51.1), Jharkhand (48.4), Maharashtra (48.3), Rajasthan (44), and Uttar Pradesh (43.5).
I wasn’t quite convinced. How could a non-profit think-tank like CBGA, which I believed was reputed, come up with such a conclusion? I was also a little displeased with my friend Jethmalani – because he was responsible for the Gujarat survey. His explanation seemed convincing: What could he do? He had to carry out a survey under a CBDA format among “stakeholders” in budget-making, be it officials, journalists or businessmen.
I was left wondering: Were other states even less transparent? I had though, their bureaucracies were quite loose, lest major scams with complete information wouldn’t ever come out. My impression of the Gujarat government, which I covered between 1997 and 2012, was that it had become increasingly non-transparent after Modi came to power in 2001.
In fact, there was an increasingly tighter control over all the information trickling from the top corridors of power. The only official source of information was the press note to newspapers, and, often, a simple CD disc to TV channels; even media briefings had been stopped!
The scribes were left with no option but to cultivate sources by hook or crook and elicit even official information, that too off the record! If earlier, the finance secretary would gladly pass on the Asian Development Bank’s two-volume report on the structural adjustments Gujarat would have to undergo to for obtaining a power sector loan, things became so tight under Modi that, often, I had to hunt for sources in Delhi to obtain reports the state government would officially submit from time to time, including the Finance Commission, to obtain Central funds.
No doubt, I thought, things would have become easier for those who took the Right to Information (RTI) route. But I rarely used it. However, my recent interaction with RTI activists of various hues suggests that, more often than not, the public authorities would just refuse to pass on any information, keeping things pending for months, often years.
A few days back, I met former Gujarat chief minister Suresh Mehta, who was also industries minister under Modi in 2002. Now around 80, he is currently recuperating from an illness. I was shocked by what he told me: Showing me volumes of communications with the Gujarat government, he told me he and his “supporters” had made at least 100 RTI applications to get the MB Shah Commission report, submitted to the state government.
The commission was mandated to “inquire” into 14 corruption charges against the Modi government by former Opposition Congress leader Arjun Modhwadia – including the now well-known shifting of Tata Nano project to Gujarat at a highly concessional rate; allocation of land at a very cheap price to the Adanis for the port and SEZ in Mundra, Kutch; allocation of forest land to the Essar Group; “irregularities” in the Gujarat State Petroleum Corporation, a state sector PSU, and so on.
“Let alone the report, for three long years the legal department, which is the official owner of the report, has been saying it doesn’t have it, forwarding all RTI pleas to the General Administration Department (GAD), in charge of personnel. The GAD, in turn, refuses, saying it could only be obtained from the legal department, which owns it, and that the report had to be first placed in the state assembly before making it public”, Mehta told me.
I remember how, in 2012, a day after of the announcement of the code of conduct for the December assembly polls, Cabinet spokesperson Jay Narayan Vyas hurriedly called a press conference to announce that the MB Shah Commission report had been “submitted” and “examined” by the Cabinet, and “nothing was found” in any of the 14 charges of corruption, leveled against the government. He refused to take any other question on when the report would be made public.
Scanning through the papers Mehta gave me, I found that the government resolution (GR) dated August 16, 2011 had stated that the commission was being set up “in public interest”, as “people in Gujarat must know whether there is any substance in the allegations, particularly at the time when a strong public opinion is building across the country against corruption in public life.”
The only information Mehta (and others) could get from the government under RTI was that the MB Shah Commission had “submitted” its interim report on September 28, 2012, it was “approved” by the Cabinet on October 10, 2012, and its final report was submitted on November 6, 2013.
Mehta said, “At a time when none in the government wants to own up the report or make it public, speaking inside the assembly, former Gujarat chief minister Anandiben Patel (who succeeded Modi in May 2014), said the MB Shah Commission report was with the Gujarat governor. An RTI plea with the Raj Bhawan, however, revealed that this wasn’t the case.”
Mehta made his last plea on October 29, 2014, when, again, the legal department said it “did not have” the Shah Commission report, forwarding the application to the GAD. In his appeal to the legal department’s public authority on November 7, 2014, Mehta was again told that it didn’t have the report, and that it is “lying with the GAD.” This made the ex-chief minister approach the Gujarat Information Commission (GIC) on April 6, 2015.
Nearly one-and-a-half years later, on September 6, 2016, the GIC called for a hearing on Mehta’s application in the presence of the public information officer, legal department, who again repeated that it “doesn’t have the report”. In his two-page order, all that RR Varsani, Gujarat Information Commissioner, did was, it did not agree that the report wasn’t with the legal department, as it was its GR which formed the MB Shah Commission, and not GAD’s. He asked the legal department to just authenticate the matter “in 20 days”.
During the arguments at GIC, referring to a GAD reply to the RTI application moved by a senior activist, Pankti Jog, that the commission report would be placed in the state assembly within six months after the “final report” was submitted, Mehta argued this has not happened even three years later.
Mehta also said, as quoted by the GIC order dated September 9, 2016, that “there is no such provision in law that the report would be made public only after it is placed in the Gujarat state assembly”. So, will the report now be made? With crossed fingers, Mehta tells me, “It’s only an initial victory. We know, finally, that the legal department has to admit it has the report. It’s already 20 days and they have not admitted it. Let’s see.”
*First published in http://blogs.timesofindia.indiatimes.com/true-lies/