Confusion surrounds Mumbai-Ahmedabad bullet train project as RTI queries turn up different responses

In the span of five months, the Maharashtra government has come up with three different responses to the same information sought under the Right to Information Act. Seeking clarity on the Mumbai-Ahmedabad bullet train project, RTI activist Jeetendra Ghadge had asked for details of the meetings of state-appointed sub committee that approved the project.

In December 2018, the information under RTI revealed the sub-committee passed the project without meeting even once. After an uproar over the revelation, the Government of Maharashtra clarified that the state-appointed sub-committee, in fact, met twice before clearing the Mumbai-Ahmedabad bullet train project. That response in January 2019 included the summary of two meetings. Smelling something fishy, Ghadge then sought the copy of the draft minutes, invitations sent to the committee members for the two meetings in question and a copy of attendance signed by the committee members and those present at the meeting.

Responding to the query in April 2019, the home department of the Maharashtra government said the information would only be made available under RTI once the matter is completed. The response cites section 8 (1)(i) in the RTI act, which exempts "cabinet papers including records of deliberations of the Council of Ministers, Secretaries and other officers" until the decision on the particular matter is made. Essentially it says, "The material on the basis of which the decisions are taken shall be made public after the decision has been taken, and the matter is complete, or over."

 Confusion surrounds Mumbai-Ahmedabad bullet train project as RTI queries turn up different responses

Representational image. Reuters

Except for one thing: The project was approved long ago (in September 2017), the decision has been made and, therefore, the exemption does not apply here.

Responding to it, Sanjay Kumar, additional chief secretary, home, said he would be unable to give any information "off-hand". "I don't know what information you have got, and the context you are asking for," he said.

Upon telling him that the RTI sought details of the meetings regarding a decision that has already been made, Kumar said, "If the response says it cannot be disclosed, then it cannot be disclosed. I don't deal with RTIs. Even if the response is from home department, there are different officers in it. You can file an appeal with the appellate authority."

On 27 February, 2017, the home department of the state issued a circular noting the formation of a subcommittee to conduct an "in-depth study" of the bullet train project. The sub-committee, said the circular, would be headed by Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis himself. Along with Fadnavis, three others on the panel of the subcommittee were Chandrakant Patil (Minister for Revenue, Relief and Rehabilitation, and Public Works), Vinod Tawde (Minister for Education) and Diwakar Raote (Minister for Transport).

Touted as Prime Minister Narendra Modi's plan to upgrade the infrastructure in India, the 508-kilometre high-speed rail project is estimated to cost Rs 1.08 lakh crore, with the Central Railway footing half the bill, and the remaining expenses to be shared equally by Gujarat and Maharashtra.

The sub-committee was formed after the transport department of Maharashtra's home department solicited inputs in January 2017 on the bullet train project. In it, the planning department said the MoU "should clarify how the revenue would be shared between Centre, Gujarat and Maharashtra after the project is operational". The revenue department noted the project is "likely to make losses, which means one would have to infuse capital repeatedly to keep it afloat".

"In this regard, it is important to know what the responsibility of the state would be," it said, adding, "There is no information or estimate available regarding how much profit or loss this project would make."

In conclusion, the revenue department asked to examine how many people go to Ahmedabad for work from Maharashtra currently, in order to establish the benefits for the state.

More than six months after the formation of the subcommittee, it approved the project without holding a single meeting, according to the initial RTI response. This reporter had called Raote for a comment, who had corroborated the information. "I am not looking into the bullet train, the chief minister is," he had said.

Upon pointing out his name is on the panel, Raote said, "My name may be there, but I have no clue about it. I don't know what this committee is, and I do not recall attending anything pertaining to it."

The revelation embarrassed the Maharashtra government. It suggested that the state may not have had a say in the bullet train project, considering Modi is keen on it.

Subsequently, in the last week of December 2018, Fadnavis suspended the information officer who had responded to the RTI query, saying he provided "incorrect information". It was the first such instance since the introduction of the RTI Act. "Selective information was asked for under the RTI Act. The state cabinet made the decision. The committee had held meetings," Fadnavis had said at the time.

In the last week of January 2019, the state disclosed the summaries of two meetings held by the subcommittee supposedly on 23 August and 4 September, 2017.

At the first meeting, held after over five-and-a-half months of the formation of the sub-committee, they mainly discussed the proposed place of the terminus at Bandra-Kurla Complex (BKC) in Mumbai.

The MMRDA had raised its objection at the proposed terminus, for it could have an impact on the development potential at BKC. The urban development department even said it would lead to a revenue loss of Rs 48,000 crore. The sub-committee discussed how the majority of the construction would be underground.

In the following meeting of 4 September, 2017, the panel decided to finalise BKC for the Mumbai terminus. It said that 0.9 hectares of land should be made available for the terminus. The land value should be included in the state government's share value in the bullet train implementation company. The sub-committee said the decision on the state government's 25 percent share value in the company would be made in the cabinet meeting. The summary confirmed it did not discuss the objections raised by several departments.

However, upon seeking further clarity on the claimed meetings, the state government has shied away from being accountable, raising suspicion on whether it indeed followed due process or not. Ghadge called the entire episode "bizarre" and said the chief minister "should come clean". "The chief minister has suspended an officer for giving false information, but now when I filed an RTI for the correct information, the officials are giving excuses," he said, "It clearly means that either the chief minister or his officials are suppressing facts."

Updated Date: Jul 09, 2019 14:55:12 IST