Being “powerful” in Punjab can even mean not paying power bills! Realty baron and chief parliamentary secretary of the ruling Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) NK Sharma and his companies have together piled up over Rs 1 crore in power bills but the department, which has decided to name and shame defaulters, is unwilling to reveal the details under the Right to Information (RTI) Act.
The Zirakpur division of the Punjab State Power Corporation Limited (PSPCL) has invoked the third-party clause of the RTI Act, 2005, which says trade secrets, intellectual property or information that harms the competitive position of a third party is exempt from disclosure under Section 8 (1)(d) unless the competent authority is satisfied that larger public interest warrants disclosure of such information.
The RTI application filed by Congress leader Manpreet Sandhu had sought information on all categories of power consumers in Zirakpur whose pending bills are default is above Rs 1 lakh.
In his reply, Ashwini Kumar, public information officer (PIO)-cum-executive engineer of PSPCL, Zirakpur division, has submitted a complete list of defaulters to the Punjab RTI commission while adding that it is third party information and can’t be disclosed.
Interestingly, for not making the disclosure, the power department, as per the RTI rules, should have given a written notice to Sharma and the latter should have replied to it within 10 days orally or in writing on why the information must not be disclosed.
According to Sandhu, NK Sharma and his group of companies top the list of defaulters with dues over Rs 1 crore. Claiming ignorance on the pending power bills, NK Sharma says his younger brother manages the business.
“The power bills of each housing project are to the tune of Rs 10 to 20 lakh. Outstanding bills, if any, are paid along with penal interest,” he said.
The power department’s “third-party” defence has been challenged by Sandhu. RTI Commissioner Chandar Parkash in his May 24 order has asked both parties to file their claims and counter claims on the next date of hearing on July 1.
Public interest versus third party
RTI activists and former commissioners say the third-party clause holds no water when a larger public interest is served by providing the information. “Unlike a bank and customer, there is no fiduciary relationship between power department and its consumers. It’s is all about interpretation of the law. Unfortunately, in Punjab, the government departments are subverting the RTI Act as the commission is more pro-government than pro-people. Power distribution companies can be pushed to bankruptcy if defaults run into crores of rupees. Revealing the list of defaulters could act as a deterrent in larger public interest,” a former RTI commissioner said, pleading anonymity.
RTI activist Hemant Goswami says Sharma is a chief parliamentary secretary in the government and the power department is just trying to save an influential politician.
“By invoking the third-party clause, is the power department claiming that list of defaulters should not be in the public domain? The department is only protecting interest of the ruling party and its leaders. When the RTI commission comprises only hand-picked political appointees of the government, despite each of these appointments having a dissent note by the leader of opposition, it raises a larger question if RTI Act itself is being subverted,” Goswami adds.
Congress leader Sandhu alleges the commission has given time to Sharma to clear his dues by July.
“There is a politician-builder nexus in Punjab and no penalty for default is imposed on the politically influential. Power connections of common consumers are disconnected if they fail to pay dues but the powerful can get away with defaults running into crores,” he said.