The details of agreements signed by governments with private organisations to execute projects can no longer be kept secret, the Central Information Commission (CIC) has ruled. If a right to information (RTI) application is moved seeking the relevant information, it will have to be provided.
The decision is likely to have far-reaching and potentially damaging implications as private companies may well shy away from such close scrutiny of their financial arrangements. So far the text of PPP agreements could be kept confidential, citing business interests.
The PPP model has been increasingly used in recent years to finance and build infrastructure — from highways to ports, from Metro lines to industrial facilities. Industry estimates say 20 per cent of India's infrastructure projects fall in this category.
The CIC has ordered the state-owned Mumbai Port Trust to release in its entirety the agreement it signed with a consortium led by Gammon India Ltd, to construct an off-shore container terminal along Mumbai’s coast.
“A PPP agreement involving the nation's physical resources and its infrastructure, which had critical environmental social and human aspects, apart from technical and financial aspects, could not be a matter between the bureaucracy of the government and the private party alone,” a three-member bench of the CIC ruled on an RTI application filed by an activist organisation, the Bombay Environmental Action Group (BEAG).
The BEAG’s application was twice rejected at lower levels before the CIC upheld it.
“This project is about public land and public money. If the government can know the implications of the project, why cannot the public?” said Hema Ramani of BEAG.
The Planning Commission and the Comptroller and Auditor General have also endorsed the ruling.
So far industry has reacted cautiously. “I welcome the order,” said Vinayak Chatterjee, who heads the Council on Infrastructure, Confederation of Indian Industry. “PPP agreements should be open to public scrutiny.”