Denying info of Ujwalla beneficiaries

BPCL says it is an invasion on privacy? HPCL provides info under RTI
Denying info of Ujwalla beneficiaries
Image Source: Website of Ministry of Petroleum and Natural Gas

On August 10th last month Prime Minister Modi launched the second phase of PM’s UjjwalaYojna wherein free gas connections will be given to one crore poor families across India.

The phase one of this scheme was launched in May 2016 wherein more than 8 crore poor families across India were benefitted by free LPG connections in last 5 years.

Have the poor really been benefited with this scheme across India especially J&K is a big question ? For the last few years this author has been getting constant complaints from BPL families alleging that they were not provided free LPG gas connection by their respective gas dealer of the area. I was unable to even seek information under RTI Act about Ujjwala Yojna as I didn’t know from which Govt office the information could be accessed?

The Food Civil Supplies & Consumer Affairs (FCS & CA) department previously called Consumer Affairs & Public Distribution Department (CAPD) said the list of beneficiaries isn’t with them? Technically they should have obtained the list of beneficiaries from all gas agencies and uploaded the same on its directorate office websites (Srinagar and Jammu both). The official district websites (DC office websites) also don’t have this information. Finally, we decided to seek the details directly from the Union Ministry of Petroleum and Natural Gas.

One of our activists, Mohammad Mudaser filed an online RTI application before the Central Public Information Officer (CPIO) of the said Ministry last month. Within a day or two this application was transferred to Bharat Petroleum Corporation Ltd (BPCL) and Hindustan Petroleum Corporation Ltd (HPCL) respectively.

Reply from BPCL

Mudaser wanted names of the Ujjwala beneficiaries in some selected areas of district Budgam, Baramulla, Kupwara, Srinagar and Pulwama. We had plans to cross check the list by carrying out on spot verification in these villages, colonies and mohallas through our volunteers. The Public Information Officer (PIO) in BPCL (LPG) headquarters at Mumbai namely S K Padhi refused to share the information which should have been proactively available on different websites. The officerinvoked section 8 (1) (J) of RTI Act 2005. The reply reads:

“Information sought relates to personal information the disclosure of which has no relationship to any public activity or interest, and would cause unwarranted invasion of the privacy of the individual. Hence denied as per 8 (1) j of RTI Act 2005 “

Mudaser wants information which Govt has to make available to every citizen & this is infact mandated under section 4 (1) (b) of RTI Act 2005. There are many poor citizens who have applied for Ujjwala gas connections but they don’t know what happened to their documents. Many might have been provided the connection on documents but on ground they got nothing. Shouldn’t the information be made public? Some poor consumers told me that they had to pay Rs 1500, Rs 2000 etc to local brokers or gas dealer. Now if a public spirited citizen wants a list of BPL families provided free LPG gas connection (Stove and Cylinder plus regulator) in a particular village or a mohalla, how can this be an invasion on the privacy of those poor individuals or families ? Such Govt officers should be dealt with according to law whose intention is not to ensure transparency in public authorities but to promote corruption and misgovernance. They want to hide the misdeeds and delinquency of their officers and gas agencies. Earlier few officers of BPCL in UT of J&K got in touch with me after I filed an online complaint on PMs Grievance portal (www.pgportal.gov.in). The officers were not so helpful as they refused to assist this author for ground verification in a few villages of Budgam wherefrom I got several complaints. The department tried to arbitrarily close down my grievance. I resisted and sent a few emails to the BPCL management. Then my colleague Mudaser sought information using RTI, which was denied. We will now take this case to Central Information Commission (CIC) and even seek intervention of Central Vigilance Commission (CVC) as well.

Past experience

Personal information which has nothing to do with any public activity is exempted under Section 8 (1) (j) of RTI Act 2005. Unfortunately, the State of Central Public Information Officers (PIOs), First Appellate Authorities (FAAs) or even Information Commissions / courts misinterpret this legal provision. In September 2011 J&K State Information Commission (JKSIC) headed by the then Chief Information Commissioner (CIC) G R Sufi gave a landmark judgement which helped to make assets of state and central administrative service officers public.

This author was denied the information by the General Administration Department (GAD) in 2010 when I sought details of property statements of Indian Administrative Service (IAS) and Kashmir Administrative Service Officers (KAS) posted in J&K. The PIO invoked section 11 (3rd party information). Some IAS officers even gave in writing to the PIO of GAD that they won’t make their property statements public as they would be under threat. The PIO had sent written communication to these officers under section 11 seeking their comments. One of the bureaucrats in his response had said:

"We are the field officers and due to the prevailing law and order situation our property at times becomes target for attack. Sharing such information without any cogent reason or specific purpose is against the mandate of law and purpose of the Act. Once this information is shared, there is every apprehension that the properties of officers will get targeted due to law and order problems."

Another officer said that there have been a good number of cases in the country where children of high-profile private sector executives have been kidnapped for ransom.

“The security situation in J&K continues to be fragile and the majority of employees do not have the security cover especially for their families. So, the sharing of information can become a big threat from criminals."

While disposing off my complaint G R Sufi, the then CIC in his order said:

"The Commission holds that they [GAD] should hoist such immovable property details of officers which are owned and acquired by them out of their own sources of income on government websites."
The order further said

“While some of the KAS officers had objected to the declaration of assets citing "security scenario in J&K", the CIC set aside the argument saying "the commission is constrained to observe that there is no express prohibition in the Act in this regard. The worthy IAS officers are at times performing more important functions and responsibilities with regard to law and order and security problems and they are obviously in senior positions than KAS officers. However, the Commission is also conscious of the fact that the IAS officers have hoisted only immovable property returns of All India and Central Services Rules. On the principle of equity, the same principle should be applied to the KAS officers."

Conclusion

When the BPCL refused to share information, Mudaser within a few days got a list of Ujwala beneficiaries from the Hindustan Petroleum Corporation Ltd (HPCL). Although the information was incomplete, the Deputy General Manager HPCL Jammu who is the designated CPIO provided a list of beneficiaries from some villages in Budgam. The details from other districts are yet to be provided. How can one public authority sit over the information by misusing legal provisions of the RTI law while another public authority provides the same information to RTI applicants? How can information about Ujwala beneficiaries cause an unwarranted invasion on the privacy of individuals? Courts, tribunals and Information Commissions need to take these issues seriously…

Dr Raja Muzaffar Bhat is an Acumen Fellow. He is Founder & Chairman of Jammu & Kashmir RTI Movement

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