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Vol. XXXII No. 16, December 1-15, 2022

An informed public calls for Transparency in governance, not Translucence

-- by A Special Correspondent

What do the Smart Cities Mission and the proposed airport at Parandur have in common? A lack of transparency.

In August, the Davidar Committee – a one-man panel led by retired IAS office PWC Davidar – submitted a report to Chief Minister MK Stalin concerning the implementation of the Smart Cities Mission projects in Tamil Nadu. The analysis covers 11 cities, each of which is said to have spent close to Rs.1,000 crores on Smart City projects; the total worth of projects screened by the committee is said to be a whopping Rs. 10,651 crores. Chennai is reported to have already utilized Rs. 700 crores under the Smart Cities Mission; the remaining Smart City projects have reportedly been allowed an extended deadline for completion owing to disruption from the pandemic. The Davidar report has not yet been made public.

Coming to the pre-feasibility study conducted for the proposed airport at Parandur, it is important to note at the outset that the project is already rather controversial – for one, the people from the affected villages worry about the adverse impact on their livelihoods and for another, the site earmarked for the new airport consists of a significant portion of wetlands. Perfectly natural then that any official pre-feasibility study and its findings would be of great interest to the common people. However, not only was the report not made public, but an RTI application filed for the purpose has been summarily turned down by TIDCO (Tamil Nadu Industrial Development Corporation Limited) with a vague explanation stating that “the information sought is exempted from disclosure under section 8(1)(a) of RTI Act.” TIDCO has also reportedly declined to share a copy of the application filed to obtain site clearance to develop the project. In light of the refusal to share information, it must be noted that an independent study conducted by Poovulagin Nanbargal revealed that close to 1,317 acres of land to be acquired for the Parandur airport are classified as porambokku land, of which nearly 955 acres are covered by lakes, ponds and small water bodies; if the proposed airport is built, the report adds, it will obstruct the flow of the 43 km long Kamban canal that fills nearly 85 lakes before emptying into Sriperumbudur lake. The people of Parandur are reportedly pressing on with their demand to see the pre-feasibility report.

It is strange that Tamil Nadu – the first state in the country to enact an access law, even before the Center did, in fact – is displaying symptoms of translucent governance. It is all the more ironic given that the State has achieved arguably wonderful work in recent years to build better channels of communication between the administration and the public. For instance, most state departments have websites of their own, with dedicated sections to serve the public. However, few of these portals are user-friendly; and of those that are, fewer still are updated with reports and press releases on a regular basis. Why, even the online process to file an RTI has made it easier for the people to exercise their right to information; on the flip side, the Act allows summary refusals like that of TIDCO’s, mentioned above. As economist and member of the State Economic Advisory Council Jean Dreze points out, section 4(2) of the RTI Act states that public institutions have an obligation to make information available to the public in a proactive manner without waiting for RTI queries. It is safe to say that the current implementation fails both word and spirit of this mandate.

A media article quotes Jean Dreze as suggesting the creation of a citizen’s information portal to help people find essential information. “Some states have taken interesting initiatives in this regard, such as the Jan Soochana portal in Rajasthan,” he points out. “TN is well placed to take them further.” While a citizen’s information portal is a good idea, it is important to create a non-digital channel for information access as well. The area sabhas and ward committees – a historic initiative by the administration to create platforms for democratic participation – may well have potential in this regard. Given that both platforms are meant to function in a manner similar to Gram Sabhas, it is hard to think of a reason why they should not also serve as channels of information that flow to the people – after all, public debate and deliberation on any matter can only become more purposeful when all are informed and educated about the facts.

For now, however, it will be interesting to see what becomes of both the Davidar report and the Parandur pre-feasibility study. The appeals process, end result and validation of the judgement may well serve to be landmark precedents – whether it will pave the way for greater transparency or cloudier translucency is anyone’s guess.

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