Who are Mumbai's landowners exempted from the Urban Land Ceiling and Regulation Act's (ULCRA) land acquisition clauses that say they build houses for 'the weaker sections' of society? What are the housing schemes that have come up as a result?
Simpreet Singh, a member of the NGO National Alliance for Peoples Movements, asked the state government to give him these details about the controversial ULCRA law's implementation under the Right to Information Act.
Under pressure from the Centre and the World Bank, the Maharashtra Government is all set to repeal ULCRA in the upcoming legislative session.
The 3-decade-old socialist land acquisition and housing measure was brought in during the Emergency by Indira Gandhi's government, placing a ceiling on owning land beyond 500 square metres, and acquiring the 'excess' for public purposes, most notably low and middle-income housing. But if its officers are to be believed, the Maharashtra Government doesn't have ready answers to the above questions.
Responding to Singh, the Public Information Officer (PIO) of Urban Development (UD), V Jadhav dashed off a rejection, claiming, "The information is too voluminous to give." The PIO at the Collectorate, S Dhaigude went a step further and sent Simpreet a bill for Rs 16.27 lakh if he wanted the information.
Dhaigude told HT, "We have over 20,000 files. Each file contains 6 pages and certified copies cost Rs 26 per page. Hence, Rs 16.2 lakh. If the citizen has a problem, he can go in for an appeal."
But Singh has now filed a complaint with the State Information Commission where over 5,000 appeals against the government are pending. He says the government is demanding astronomical sum because it does not want to reveal the information since it will show up the non-implementation of the act.
"I neither asked for entire files, not certified copies. I only want the list of landowner exemptions, and the names of the housing schemes on that land -- which should otherwise have come to the government," Singh said.
Singh points out that the government had informed the High Court that 1,800 acres or 45 Nariman Points of excess land in Mumbai had been exempted under ULCRA in the city. "How can they do not know this land was used if they have decided to repeal it?"
Section 4 of the RTI Act also states that government departments should keep all their records catalogued and indexed in a manner that helps citizens access information. But 15 months after the act came into force, UD department, headed by Chief Minister Vilasrao Deshmukh, is yet to do it.
Jadhav said, "I do not have the time to do all this. There is a lot of work." UD Secretary Ramanand Tiwari justified the response saying, "RTI prescribes a fee and it is okay to charge accordingly when informtion has to be culled from so many files."
State Information Commissioner Suresh Joshi, who is yet to hear Singh's complaint, said that the state wasn't implementing the sunshine law adequately. "I met the chief minister and the chief secretary two weeks ago and informed them about the need for all departments to implement suo moto disclosure clause and organise their records.
Over a year has passed and we have a more refined sense now of what citizens want to know, so it should be done, especially with regard to policy matters."
Joshi added the state had promised to convene a meeting of all secretaries to ensure their departments fall in line, and he would pursue the matter with the government.