Activist Simpreet Singh received the national RTI council award instituted by Arvind Kejriwal’s Public Cause Research Foundation on behalf of the National Alliance for Peoples Movement (NAPM) which uses the RTI Act to expose fraud and misappropriation of public assets. NAPM used the RTI Act to investigate Adarsh, the tower meant for Kargil war widows, but usurped by state bureaucrats, politicians and defence personnel who had no role to play in Kargil. Singh spoke to Viju B about the scam:
How did you come to know that Adarsh towers were built illegally?
Six years ago, when the Maharashtra government said they will convert Mumbai into Shanghai and began doling out land reserved for the poor and homeless to developers, we began looking into this issue. It began as a social movement, but we could not get enough information. We then used the RTI Act to expose several housing frauds related to the slum rehabilitation scheme where land meant to house slum-dwellers was grabbed by builders with political consent. We found out that construction of a building had begun at the Backbay Reclamation in Colaba where many defence personnel and state bureaucrats were members.
What was your next step?
We filed about seven RTI queries, asking for details of file notings, sale of land and environmental clearances. The RTI queries were filed with the Mumbai collectorate, state revenue department, Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority, state urban development and environment department.
What was the information you got?
The RTI replies showed that the width of the road in front of the building was reduced from 70 metres to 19 metres. Though the area came under coastal regulation zone (CRZ)-1, it was changed to CRZ-2. The adjoining plot of Bombay Electric Supply and Transport (BEST) was used for granting additional floor space index. The building came without any environmental clearance and the then state urban development secretary P V Deshmukh used a communication from the ministry of environment and forests (MoEF) to show that Adarsh had its environmental clearance. The file notings also showed in chronological order how each minister and bureaucrat who got a flat in Adarsh was involved at some point or other in granting permits such as commencement and occupation certificates. The final list of 103 members showed that there were hardly any Kargil widows even amongst defence personnel who got flats.
How difficult was it to get information and how much did NAPM’S public interest litigation filed in 2010 help?
We had to wait for almost six months to get RTI responses, though under the RTI Act it is mandatory that they reply within 30 days of receiving the query. Our PIL relied on the RTI replies. If it was not for the RTI Act we would not have been able to crack the Adarsh scam.
Do you think the demolition order of Adarsh by the MoEF was the right move?
The demolition order acknowledged the fact that the building was illegal. We are happy about this. But MoEF is silent on the action to be taken against officials involved in the scam. The building did not come up on its own. Under Section 16 of the Environment Protection Act, department heads can be prosecuted for abetting a crime.
What other RTI successes has NAPM had?
We exposed the environment violations committed by the Lavasa group while constructing luxury apartments in Pune. We also exposed how 350 acres of prime land meant for middle and lower-middle class housing was given to a builder in Powai for just 40 paise per acre. They were liable to pay Rs 2,000 crore, but the government levied a fine of just Rs 200 crore. The PIL on this is still pending.