The Ministry of External Affairs was rebuked by the Central Information Commissioner for its “delay in furnishing” information on the amount spent in organising the launch of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s book, ‘Exam Warriors’, in February 2018.
At a time when the issue of government transparency has yet again made headlines in the wake of reports on electoral bonds and the secretive funding of political parties, Central Information Commissioner Sudhir Bhargava counselled the External Affairs Ministry (MEA) “to be more careful in future so that such lapses do not recur”.
He also reminded the Chief Public Information officer (CPIO) that “the provisions of the RTI Act are implemented in letter and spirit.” Admonishing both – the CPIO and the First Appellate Authority (FAA) in the MEA – Bhargava, in his final decision, wrote that “the Commission takes a serious view of the lapse in furnishing information to the appellant.”
It was only after the CIC’s rebuke, 21 months after the first RTI was filed, that the MEA disclosed on 19 November that it had spent Rs 10,12,610 on launching the PM’s book and had awarded the event contract to Thomas Cook (I) Ltd.
A 21-Month Struggle For Information
The appellant, Neeraj Sharma, a resident of New Delhi, had filed an online application under the Right to Information Act, 2005 (RTI Act) before the Central Public Information Officer (CPIO), Ministry of External Affairs, New Delhi, seeking information on six points pertaining to expenses and funding of the launch of the book, ‘Exam Warriors.’
The information sought included:
i) total amount spent on the event of launch of book ‘Exam Warriors’
ii) the contractor that was awarded the logistical work
iii) details of fund utilised for this event (fund name, expense head under which it was spent).
The book was launched at a function in Pravasi Bharatiya Kendra on 3 February. While former External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj was the chief guest at the event, Union Human Resource Development Minister Prakash Javadekar was the guest of honour on the occasion.
However, the process of seeking basic information pertaining to an event related the Prime Minister took over 21 months to reach fruition. Following is the chronology of the entire RTI process:
- 5 February 2018: First RTI filed. Reply received on 20 March.
- 2 April: First Appeal Filed. No response from First Appellate Authority
- 19 June: Second Appeal Filed.
- 15 November 2019: hearing at Central Information Commission
- 19 November: Final decision directing MEA to provide information sought by Sharma and counselled the ministry to execute RTI “in letter and spirit”.
Rs 10 Lakh for ‘Exam Warriors’ Launch
The CPIO furnished a detailed response in November following the Chief Information Commissioner’s decision. Following are the details of the information received.
- A meeting was held on 28 January 2018, chaired by former External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj. It was also attended by Prakash Javadekar, Minister for Humar Resource Development.
- The reply stated that as the time available was too short to seek bids from empanelled event management companies, the contract was awarded to Thomas Cook (I) Ltd.
- The total expense incurred by MEA on the even launch was Rs 10,12, 612 of which Rs 9,77,201 and Rs 35,000 to the interpreter.
Book Launch Should Not Be With Public Money: Appellant
Neeraj Sharma, an RTI activist, had sought the information two days after the event was held.
“I sought the information about the book launch because i feel It amounts to misuse of public money. Students are protesting on the street against a fee hike and the government spent money on book launches,” Sharma told The Quint.
“Book launch is a private matter of the Prime Minister, he should bear this cost . The PM is using public money for a PR exercise. That's not a sign of good governance .” he added.
Sharma said he also feared that this could “give out a wrong message to officers and staff who could follow the same example and misuse the public money for similar private functions.”
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