New Delhi: The coal ministry is sending a stock reply to hundreds of Right to Information (RTI) applicants, citing the ongoing Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) probe as a reason for not being able to provide answers to questions seeking details on the controversial coalfield allocations.
Replies to applications received in the last month or so say providing information would hinder the “prosecution” by CBI, according to a government official close to the process.
“An exemption is being sought,” said the official, who didn’t want to be named. “The files are not available with us. CBI has taken them.”
Most of the RTI applications have been moved by advocates with queries from media companies among them, the official said.
“Some have come from companies fearing their blocks will be deallocated,” said the official. “Some have come from companies who did not get the coal blocks and they are asking ‘why has that company received a block and we haven’t?’”
Irregularities in the allocation of 195 coalfields to 289 companies since 1993 by the coal ministry led to a notional loss of Rs.1.86 trillion, the Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG) said in August.
CBI has filed several cases against coalfield owners. A separate scrutiny by the coal ministry has led to the cancellation of 13 fields and encashment of bank guarantees of 14 companies since last month.
Parallels are being drawn between this and the controversy related to the award of second-generation (2G) telecom spectrum, which led to the arrest of government officials and cancellation of permits.
The coal ministry’s stock reply to applicants is ironical in the wake of Prime minister Manmohan Singh’s statement last week that there is an overuse of the RTI Act, as the ministry has successfully staved off the need for individual answers to hundreds of applicants.
“There are concerns about the frivolous and vexatious use of the Act in demanding information the disclosure of which cannot possibly serve any public purpose,” Singh said recently, while also describing it as “one of the many steps” taken by the government to strengthen the mechanism to curb corruption.
“Such queries, besides serving little productive purpose, are also a drain on the resources of the public authorities, diverting precious manhours that could be put to better use,” Singh said, speaking at the annual convention of the Central Information Commission.
A lawyer said the coal ministry was justified in not sharing information as it could prejudice CBI’s investigation.
“The information officer may be within his rights not to disclose such information that may impede the investigation or prosecution of offenders as provided under section 8 (1) (h) of the RTI Act,” said Ashish Prasad of law firm Luthra and Luthra.
However, in the larger interest of public good, the information officer could choose to give it out, and that would depend on “the facts of each case”, Prasad added.