By Venkatesh Nayak*
While replying to the debate in the Lok Sabha on budgetary proposals for Jammu and Kashmir for the next financial year (2020-2021), the Hon’ble Finance Minister claimed, transparency had increased, corruption had ended and true democracy had been instituted there with the downgrading of the erstwhile State to a Union Territory last year. While the effect of J&K’s status-change on democracy and corruption is something which local people should be able to comment on, the claims of transparency can always be verified by anybody using The Right to Information Act, 2005 (RTI Act). Here is as sampler.
Transparency in apple procurement in J&K
How many apples were bought from growers in Jammu and Kashmir under the Market Intervention Scheme (MIS) that the Central and State/UT level governments implemented through the National Agricultural Cooperative Marketing Federation of India Ltd. (NAFED) during the current season (2019-2020)? The figures these governments furnished first to the Supreme Court of India and then twice to Parliament do not match with the data that the Department of Agriculture Cooperation and Farmers Welfare, has now supplied under the RTI Act. Click here to read more.
The RTI Intervention
More than a month after the status of Jammu and Kashmir was changed through legislative action in Parliament, a Market Intervention Scheme for procuring apples directly from producers in various districts of the State (as it then was) was announced. This was widely publicised as a measure to ensure better economic development in the J&K and ensure corruption-free procurement. The scheme also envisaged direct transfer of the price paid to the bank accounts of producers. NAFED was the main instrumentality for the implementation of this scheme. The procurement target was 13,000 metric tonnes. So, one day after the legislative changes downgrading J&K from a full-fledged State to a Union Territory (UT) came into effect, i.e. on 01 November 2019, I filed an RTI application with the Dept. of Agriculture (DAC) through the RTI Online Facility seeking the following information about the implementation of the apple MIS in J&K: Click here to read the RTI application.
In my RTI application I also requested them to call for any information sought from the concerned public authorities in J&K, if DAC does not have it readily available with them. I also stated that I could not seek this information directly from any public authority in J&K directly as the RTI Online Facility has not been extended to the UT.
DAC’s initial response
DAC’s Central Public Information Officer (CPIO), treated NAFED as “third party” and sought information from them 10 days later apart from forwarding my RTI application to multiple PIOs internally. Treating NAFED as “third party” is itself hugely problematic because I had not sought any information that ought to have remained “confidential”. In fact, all the information I had sought should have been proactively disclosed under various clauses of Section 4(1)(b) of the RTI Act. I waited for a substantial reply from DAC’s CPIO for two months.
NAFED claims it is not covered by the RTI Act
Meanwhile, having read a very detailed reply given by the Union Ministry of Finance to a long set of questions raised by a group of five Lok Sabha MPs ranging from tax evasion to rotting onions that were bought for the purpose of price stabilisation, I had filed another RTI application seeking detailed information on those matters. The queries relating to rotting onions reached DAC eventually and the CPIO transferred it to NAFED again. This time round, NAFEFD sent a reply stating that it was not a public authority under the RTI Act. Click here for NAFED’s reply.
A September 2009 decision of the Central Information Commission (CIC) recognising NAFED as a public authority had been upheld by a Single Judge Bench of the Delhi High Court in May 2010. However NAFED obtained a stay on the operation of both decisions from a Division Bench of the same Court in July 2010. Incidentally, without imputing anything but as a statement of a bald fact, it must be pointed that the Judge who upheld the CIC’s order bringing NAFED under the RTI Act was recently transferred to the High Court of Punjab and Haryana. A quick check of the website of the Delhi High Court shows, NAFED’s petition has not been taken up for hearing since February 2017. Instead it has been clubbed with that of others like KRIBHCO, Mother Dairy, IFFCO, power DisComs in Delhi like NDPL, BSES Rajdhani and BSES-Yamuna Indraprastha Gas Ltd. and Delhi Integrated Multi-Modal Transit System Ltd., all of which are claiming exemption from the RTI Act. These cases have been pending for between 5-10 years now.
The first appeal filed with DAC
Although I had looked up all these cases of public utilities claiming exemption from the RTI Act a few years ago, I had forgotten about this matter while chasing other RTIs. So I filed appeals in both cases with the DAC using NAFED’s reply arguing that the CPIO ought not to have transferred my RTI applications to them knowing fully that they refused to be covered by the RTI Act. Click here to read the first appeal.
The First Appellate Authority (FAA) decided the appeal relating to the procurement of J&K apples within a month of its submission and disclosed some information based on records available with DAC. Click here for the FAA’s order and the information he supplied free of charge.
Information supplied by the FAA contradicts the figures placed before Parliament and the Supreme Court
The FAA furnished a copy of the MIS under which apples were said to have been procured in J&K. According to DAC’s FAA, a total of 1,56,120.470 quintals of apples were bought under the MIS during the 2019-2020 season at a cost of Rs. 6,955.59 lakhs. When converted this amounts to 7,642.907MT of apples purchased at a cost of Rs. 69.55 crores (INR 695.50 Million). A total of 1,054,169 boxes containing three grades of apples – Delicious, American and Maharaji, were despatched during this season up to 30th January, 2020 from five districts, namely, Anantnag, Srinagar, Sopore, Shopian and Kulgam. Detailed information about pricing, packaging and quantities are contained in the FAA’s order.
So, what is the problem with this information? In November 2019, Lok Sabha was told, as of 12th November, 2019- 7,940MT of apples were purchased under the MIS. Click here for the Q&A.
Later in response to another question raised in the Lok Sabha on 4th February, 2020 (this budget session), the Government replied that it has purchased 15,769.38MT of apples at a cost of Rs. 70.45 crores (INR 704.5 Million) under this scheme. Click here for the Q&A.
There is a huge discrepancy in the figures tabled in Parliament and given to me under RTI.
Even if one were to reason that the Government mixed up quintals with metric tonnes while replying in February, 2020, the problem does not go away. The reply given in November 2019 of 7,940 metric tonnes is much higher than the figure of 7,642 metric tonnes given under RTI. As district-wise figures including quality-wise breakup and packaging category-wise break up is now available under RTI, it seems to be a more credible figure than what Parliament was told on two occasions.
Meanwhile, the Govt. of J&K reported apple procurement data to the Supreme Court of India in the Anuradha Bhasin case last year. They claimed that NAFED procured 8,960MT of apples during the same season at a cost of Rs. 38 crores (INR 380 Million) under the Market Intervention Scheme. Click here and scroll down to serial no. 7 on page 16 of the document.
I am grateful for the advocates for the Petitioner in this case for sharing this information with me. So GoJ&K claimed that NAFED had procured more apples than what Parliament was told in November 2019 and at just about 45% less cost than what I was informed in reply to my RTI application!
Interestingly, the FAA claimed that DAC does not have data about producers who benefited under this scheme. I will file a second appeal before the CIC against non-disclosure of all other information sought in my RTI application.
A snapshot view of the procurement trends
A quick review of the procurement data compiled by DAC for the five centres presents the following trends:
1) 98.97% of the apples procured across the five centres, during the current season, were of the Delicious variety; 0.69% were of the American variety and the remaining 0.33% were of the Maharaji variety;
2) At 6,601.005MT, Anantnag and Shopian together contributed the bulk of procurement during this season. While Anantnag accounted for 46.77% of the total procurement, Shopian came second contributing 39.61%. Kulgam came third contributing 11.23% of the total procurement. Sopore’s contribution was 1.58%. Srinagar’s contribution was the least at 0.79% of the total volume of procurement.
3) However, in terms of sales proceeds, both Anantnag and Shopian took a little more than 43% each of the monetary value of the apples procured. Although Anantnag contributed more of the Delicious variety of apples than Shopian, the latter saw six times more procurement of the American variety of apples than Anantnag. This seems to be the major reason why Shopian catches up with Anantnag in terms of its share in the sales proceeds.
I leave it to readers to calculate other findings from the procurement figures. Click here for the machine readable and analysable data tables.
The huge discrepancy in figures including the cost of procurement raises several questions about the credibility of claims being made before Parliament, the highest court of the land and now under the RTI Act. Two of my own contacts in J&K have revealed that many many farmers had to watch their apple crop rot away because there were simply no vehicles to pick them up from the orchards, thanks to the restrictions on vehicular movement imposed August 2019 onwards. So which farmer sold how many apples to NAFED at what price is crucial to find out.
If the actual figure is in the range of 7,000-8,000 metric tonnes as it has been claimed in three different places, then the actual procurement has fallen way too short of the target of 13,000 metric tonnes set in September 2019 lending credibility to the claims of people in J&K that a large portion of their apple crop might have just rotted away this season. If this is what actually happened, then the authorities have not only failed the growers in J&K but also the millions of under-nourished and hungry citizens, particularly mothers and children who could have been fed these fruits through the ICDS and mid-day-meal schemes at nominal procurement, transportation and handling cost.
If on the other hand, the figure of 15,769.38MT reported in the Lok Sabha this February is correct, the CPIO, DAC has provided a much lower and misleading figure under the RTI Act. These matters can be verified only if details of farmer-wise procurement and payments made are published. The authorities involved in the procurement process at the UT and Central level all have a duty to proactively disclose this information under Section 4(1)(b)(xii) of the RTI Act.
I will do an appeal to the CIC soon on this subject in the interests of promoting greater transparency in this whole affair.
All facts are in the public domain. Views are personal.
*Programme Head, Access to Information Programme, Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, New Delhi