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How RTI Exposed Some Of India’s Greatest Scams

One of India’s most landmark legislation, the Right to Information (RTI) Act, has caused a marked change in the country in its 13 years of existence. The RTI Act meant to bring transparency and accountability in government functioning, gives citizens the right to demand any information regarding governance. In the past 13 years, over 2.5 crore applications were filed, making the Act an instrumental tool in exposing scams in India. 

Through this article, we take you through some of the most prominent cases involving the use of RTI. 

Use it to expose the Adarsh Scam

Adarsh Housing Society, a 31-storey upscale residential complex in Colaba, Mumbai, should have originally housed heroes and widows of the 1999 Kargil War. But the occupants of the apartment complex, built on defence land, ended up being bureaucrats and relatives of politicians who were in no way connected to the Kargil war.

For years, the flats stayed with high profilers including family of the then Chief Minister Ashok Chavan. This is why, little enquiry was launched into the residents of the society, as politicians used their clout to keep the scam under covers.

Then, in 2008, two RTI activists, Yogacharya Anandji and Simpreet Singh, filed RTI applications, which found that the land on which the building was built was owned by the Defense Ministry and not by the Government of India, prompting the Army and the CBI to launch separate probes into the matter.

What, at first, appeared as a misuse of granted land, turned murkier as the revelations of the probe grew. It was found that the 100-metre tall project had not obtained the necessary clearances (NOC) to build a high-rise in an army area and a Coastal Regulation Zone. The society only had permission to construct up to 6 floors, but benami transactions were done to forge NOC certificates. 

While the scam was going on since 2003, it only came under public ire after the RTI report reached the media and the latter covered the issue extensively. All investigations and court cases were fast tracked and resulted in the resignation of Chavan as CM in 2010.The Maharashtra government tried to acquire the land to provide respite to the residents, but failed to do so. The Maharashtra government then tried to acquire the land to provide respite to its residents, but failed to do so. Even today, residents of the society are troubled with court cases and petitioners demanding it be demolished. They still feel the impact of the 10 year old RTI. 

Use it to put the Coal Ministry in jail 

Between 2004 and 2009, the Government of India allocated 194 blocks of coal to various public and private companies at prices lower than real value. Ideally, the process of coal allocation is such that it invites proposals/tenders from companies. And then an auction is held through which the most competitive buyer is allocated the coal block. But instead the UPA government sold off the blocks to big companies (Jindal group, Essar Group, Laxmi Mittal) who gave the former more commission (ahem… bribe). Due to this the government lost Rs. 1.86 lakh crore in revenue while the companies’ profits soared.

In 2007, lawyer Sudeep Shrivastava filed an RTI application demanding details of how and to whom coal blocks had been allotted. However, nothing came out of the RTI because the Information Commission (IC) permitted the Coal Ministry to withhold such information under “security pretexts”. This came as an absurd excuse and raised a lot of questions through the media – which then termed it the Coalgate scandal. 

Finally, the case reached the CBI and several coal blocks formerly given to private companies were deallocated. It led to the arrest of nine key players in the Coalgate scam – former Jharkhand CM Madhu Koda, former Coal Secretary HC Gupta, order Jharkhand Chief Secretary AK Basu, chartered accountant Navin Kumar Tulsyan, and some other small time government servants.

The RTI application marked the start of the unravelling of the Coalgate scam which had been playing for over 10 years. It is only when the IC suspiciously covered the Coal Ministry’s actions, did the media take the issue to grand scale prompting. And even today, cases are going on against Kumar Mangalam Birla and former PM Manmohan Singh.  

Use it to improve networks

Just like the Coalgate scam, in this one too 2G spectrum licenses were illegally allocated to telecom companies at throwaway prices. Politicians and government officials did so in exchange for a hefty bribe. The multi-crore scam brought a loss of approximately Rs 1.76 lakh crores to the government.

An RTI application filed by activist Subhash Chandra Agrawal found that the Telecom Minister – A. Raja, External Affairs Minister – Pranab Mukherjee and Solicitor General – G. E. Vahanvati held a suspicious and secret meeting regarding the 2G allocation in 2007. Another RTI application filed by activist Vivek Garg in 2011 led to a note from the Finance Ministry that said that the spectrum could have been auctioned for more than what Finance Minister P. Chidambaram had insisted.

The CAG (Comptroller and Auditor General) found that licenses had been issued to ineligible applicants who had deliberately suppressed facts, disclosed incomplete information and submitted fictitious documents. These faux companies then in turn sold the licenses to various other Indian/foreign companies at high premium within a short period of time.

Although the RTIs did not directly expose the scam, they did help uncover the involvement of many high-level officials. They promoted a probe into the issue which led to the CBI filing an 80,000 page chargesheet in the trial court. The case is still going on with the SC cancelling licenses of all those involved in the scam. 

Use it to finally fund sports in India

A major scam hit Delhi in 2010, when India was chosen to host the Commonwealth Games (CWG). An RTI application filed by the Housing and Land Rights Network revealed that the Delhi government had diverted Rs. 744 crore for economic development and social welfare of Scheduled Castes to various CWG projects. It also found that a lot of these CWG projects only existed on paper and were never implemented. In fact, Suresh Kalmadi, the Chairman of the Organising Committee of the Games signed a contract of Rs 141 crore to Swiss Timings for its timing equipment, whereas the real cost of the equipment was about about Rs 95 crore lesser.

As a result of these RTIs, the Enforcement Directorate (ED) in Delhi started probing the issue. The ED found that only half of the total funds allotted for the CWG were spent on Indian sportsmen. The athletes were allegedly asked to shift to shabby apartments and use substandard equipment for practice.

The RTIs not only brought the existence of the scam to the limelight but also revealed controversial details that ensured fast investigations by the ED and the CBI. Before this even, most people in India were unaware of the lack of funding to the sports sector and created a huge rally in the following years to improve our sports money allocation. 

Use it to remove nepotism from national exams

The state level entrance exams (Medical and Engineering) in Madhya Pradesh are conducted by a Vyavsayik Pariksha Mandal (Vyapam).  which is an autonomous body. The Vyapam scam was an entrance examination, admission & recruitment scam in Madhya Pradesh in 2013. It involved several politicians, government officials and businessmen who manipulates exam hall seating arrangements, supplied forged answer sheets to students and hired imposters to write exam papers.

Since the 1990s, there had been several cases where candidates were found to have paid politicians and the Vyapam officials bribes to get higher ranks in exams than they deserved. Here’s how that worked. The undeserving candidates would leave their OMR answer sheets blank or fill in only the answers they were sure about. The corrupt board officials would manipulate records to give these candidates high percentages.

But the sheer scale of the scam came to light in 2013, when several whistleblowers (Prashant Pandey, Ashish Chaturvedi, Dr Anand Rai) and an activist Ajay Dubey’s RTI  led to the arrest of  20 people in Indore who had impersonated candidates in a 2009 exam. Dr Anand Rai single handedly investigated the case by finding exam papers and cash in Jagdish Sarkar’s (leader of the racket) office. He then filed an FIR and RTI application which led to Sarkar’s arrest.

The RTI not only exposed the Vyapam scam but also the severe problem of nepotism and corruption in national exams across the country.

The RTI can be used to reveal a lot more controversial information in the proceedings of the government. Like the time when RTIs were filed to ask about the amount black money collected through demonetisation or what was the cost of printing new notes. Several applications were filed to reveal the details of the Rafale Jets Deal, the net assets of politicians, human rights violations in Naxalite areas and total cost of Modi’s foreign trips. Some of them get answered, some of them rejected, but nevertheless, an RTI into a controversial matter can unravel a bubbling scam or bring down an underperforming government.

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