RTI used to challenge development priorities

By Frederick Noronha


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Pune : From frivolous queries and corporate concerns to questioning the government's development priorities, India's two-year young Right to Information Act is satisfying the curiosity of various petitioners.

The Mumbai-based National Alliance of People's Movements (NAPM), linked to doughty campaigner Medha Patkar, said it has found the Right to Information Act (RIT) to be "a tool to expose scams of development".

NAPM was launched with the goal of building a people's political force outside electoral politics that will bring together Gandhian, Marxist and Ambedkarite perspectives.

Announcing NAPM's experiences at a national convention here, Medha Patkar, better known for her campaigns against displacement caused by mega dams, challenged the view that only slum dwellers and the poor were "encroachers".

NAPM said it found a shopping mall built at Worli in Mumbai, which was on municipal land reserved for housing the homeless and a municipal primary school. About 1,885 tenements for slum dwellers were to be built on the three-acre plot.

A 60-storey building with twin towers, claimed to be the tallest in India, is planned to be made on land reserved for a road, said NAPM citing information ferreted out under the RTI Act.

"Extensive use of RTI has been able to expose various irregularities and the corrupt nexus in issues related to urban renewal in Mumbai," said NAPM campaigners, citing specific cases.

NAPM had also filed queries about the World Bank supported Mumbai Urban Transport Project, critics of which see it as displacing more than 20,000 families, said Patkar.

NAPM said public land had been diverted for private use. Documents obtained under RTI Act showed that "in the last two years, the government of Maharashtra changed or deleted the reservations of 60 plots and handed over most of them to private builders to build high-rise complexes".

NAPM sometimes faced roadblocks while trying to get the information released. The collector (urban land ceiling) demanded a payment of Rs.1.6 million to release a list of plots where schemes of providing houses to the economically weaker sections are being implemented, it said.

RTI applications have also been filed to get information about families eligible for rehabilitation, water woes experienced by people and the loans given to Maharashtra.

NAPM said some months back entry was restricted to the seat of government in Mumbai, the Mantralaya, "where many important documents are based".

Of late, the principal information officers had been saying that they could not supply official information as what was sought was "voluminous and compilation of the same requires a diversion of public authority, disproportionately", said Patkar.

Sections of the corporate world, politicians and government employees who themselves feel deprived of justice have also been major users of the RTI Act.