Housing and Urban Development Corporation (HUDCO), New Delhi, stated that it has purchased ‘gifts’ worth Rs 22 lakh, but did not maintain any record of purchasing those gifts and their distribution. HUDCO, which has to increase housing in urban areas, claims that giving gifts was essential for promotion of business! If true, it has to disclose what business they made.

In an RTI request, applicant sought to know: (a) total amount spent from the coffers of HUDCO on gifts for the financial years 2013-14 to 2015-16; (b) the names of the beneficiaries of the gifts; total amount spent on the coffers of HUDCO for the renovation of the official residence of its Chairman & MD at ASIAD village, New Delhi; (c) total number of air-conditioners installed at the amount spent from the coffers of HUDCO; (d) total amount spent on electricity bills of the official residence of its Chairman & MD by the coffers of HUDCO; (e) number of branded premium pens such as Mont Blanc gifted by HUDCO to various persons and whether any of the recipients of such gifts were senior officer/public servants and the price of each pen etc through 24 points, etc. and whether any of the recipients of such gifts were senior officer/public servants and the price of each pen etc through 24 points.

Appellant’s representative Mukul Jain alleged that malpractices worth around five crore rupees were going on in HUDCO in giving and receiving gifts, involving senior people in the Ministry, and that they were not giving any information. He said that costly gifts like iPhone, Mont Blanc Pens, and iPads were being given to the senior authorities of their Ministry by the Managing Director of HUDCO.

In an earlier case, a date of inspection was fixed as agreed to by both the parties on 20.4.2017. But the appellant complained of non-compliance. The CPIO, HUDCO, on 28.4.2017, wrote: “In this regard it is mentioned that persons concerned who are custodians of the information were not available and hence we have provided relevant information available and as provided by the concerned departments to you without any cost or fee as per the RTI rules.” The appellant also pointed out that in their compliance report dated 24.5.2017, the CPIO wrongfully claimed to have complied with the order.

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He pleaded that the public authority has a duty to inform details about gifts purchased; if given to any officer, to whom and why; what is the legal basis or justification for giving gifts, did they maintain any register of gifts purchased and delivered, if not the receipt of gifts, and about expenditure on the house and office of MD etc. They have breached their duty to answer how many Mont Blanc Pens, iPhones and Ipads were purchased to whom they were given, quantum of money spent on MD’s residence and office. The Commission directed to provide point-wise information along with certified copies of relevant files as asked for by the appellant by 15th July 2017. In response, the public authority answered that branded pens were not gifted, but only one Mont Blanc pen was bought by HUDCO and that is lying in the stock of HUDCO.

The public authority stated in their letter dated 13.7.2017 that they had spent Rs 28,22,897 for purchasing mementoes, souvenirs etc during 2014-15(Rs 12,00,703), 2015-16 (16,11,194) but claimed that they do not maintain any record for that. They have duty to tell where from they purchased, what did they purchase? Why? Given to whom? It’s a serious irregularity that facilitates corruption of misappropriation of public money, which needs to be probed. If they have purchased Apple iPhones, tablets, Mont-blanc pens, they have a duty to explain why they purchased such costly gadgets and what they did with them.

In the compliance report dated 20th April 2017 the HUDCO submitted that “Gifts/Mementoes/Souvenirs are part of normal Corporate Activity of Business Promotion and PR exercise and distributed based on occasions and no record is maintained in this regard”. What is the corporate business the HUDCO is doing? If they have really used it to promotion of business, they should prove how much business and what business they have promoted? It is a housing and urban development body. They are not real estate business dealers or developers. Whom did they give gifts and what business they promoted?

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The Commission directed HUDCO to submit the vouchers, file-notes, list of the persons to whom the gifts are given, and the business that was promoted because of this within one month. The Commission also recommended to the Comptroller and Auditor General to take note of the claim that the HUDCO spent lakhs of rupees every year to purchase costly gifts without maintaining records, examine whether it is permissible, if not take necessary to check unhealthy practices if any.

The RTI Act is made to empower the citizen to question the financial indiscipline, irregularities and scandals. By purchasing lakhs worth gifts, not maintaining records, denying the information by using illegal tactics, harassing RTI applicant the HUDCO proved the apprehensions of the applicant about corruption which needs to be probed. The Commission recommends the Ministry of Urban Development, Government of India to probe the expenditure of HUDCO and incorporate healthy records maintenance and accountability practices besides taking stern action against these irregularities. The Commission requires the HUDCO to maintain record of expenditure in proper manner and provide access under RTI Act, within two months from receipt of this order.

The Commission directs the HUDCO to pay a token compensation of Rs: 5000/- to the appellant for suspecting, harassing and denying him information within one month from the date of receipt of this order and give a compliance report to this Commission. One of the excuses the CPIO put forward was that the appellant exceeded 500-word-limit and hence it needs to be rejected. The Right to Information Rules 2012, Rule 3 says—An application under sub-section (I) of Section 6 of the Act shall be accompanied by a fee of rupees ten and shall ordinarily not contain more than five hundred words, excluding annexures, containing address of the Central Public Information Officer and that of the applicant: Provided that no application shall be rejected only on the ground that it contains more than five hundred words.

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The RTI application cannot be rejected on this ground (of words limit) alone. What should PIO do when a lengthy RTI application with more than 500 words? Following are the alternatives: Examine 500 words to find what applicant substantially wants. For instance, in this case applicant wrote point one with 36 words, in which he wanted “amount spent on gifts and list of recipients for three years”. If substance of what he sought is taken it does not go beyond 500 words. The PIOs did not take any initiative to understand the substance of his RTI request but enthusiastic to somehow deny it.

This should be avoided. People with such attitude should not be appointed in RTI wing. Provide reasonable assistance to applicant to focus on a particular aspect as per his requirement, reminding him of 500 words limit. Give part information and ask him to point out what else he needs reminding him of 500 words limit. Offer to facilitate inspection of the relevant files. This course can be adopted even in cases of multiple or repeated RTI applications on the same subject.

Above all, most of the information sought was supposed to be given voluntarily by the public authority under Section 4(1)(b) of RTI Act. Information about appointments, construction, travels of officers, purchases, policies etc should have been disclosed voluntarily, but two CPIOs and one First Appellate Authority acted like a team to deny. And both of the CPIOs were heavily praising themselves as transparent, fair, law abiding etc, while the facts on paper totally contradict.

Deputy Registrar of CIC was asked to mark a copy order to Dr Nandita Chatterjee, Secretary to Government of India, Ministry of Housing and Urban Poverty Alleviation, and Rao Inderjit Singh, Minister for Housing and Urban Poverty Alleviation, for necessary action soon.

(Based on decision in CIC/HUDCO/A/2017/195197, Vishwas Bhamburkar v. PIO, Housing & Urban Development Corporation Ltd, dated 26.12.2017). #KhabarLive