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Panchayat Taxation Scam: Officers Treating RTI Queries Like Football, Says MP Info Commissioner

Representative image.

Representative image.

The state information commission has issued show-cause notices of Rs 25,000 each to four PIOs for denial of information by presenting a variety of reasons, including passing the buck to each other.

Taking strong objection to the persistent denial of information by government officers in Rewa district who have been passing the buck to each other, the Madhya Pradesh state information commission has served notices to four public information officers (PIOs).

Around a year ago, RTI activist Shivanand Dwivedi had moved some applications with the district administration over an alleged Rs 300 crore taxation scam that took place in panchayats in the districts as well as in the state. The matter came to light through responses to RTI queries in Gangeo janpad block where government employees in 38 panchayats allegedly collected and misappropriated tax money up to Rs 8 crore.

The panchayat taxation scam, which has been making headlines, is in lieu of the tax collected locally by gram panchayats even after a grant was sanctioned to 75 panchayats in Rewa district of Madhya Pradesh. Accusers say the overall scam amounts to Rs 300 crore and concerns 1,148 gram panchayats of Madhya Pradesh.

According to Dwivedi, the Rewa collector had ordered an inquiry into the taxation scam through the block chief executive officer.

For close to a year, RTI queries seeking information on the scam and the subsequent probe had been pending with the district collectorate, zila panchayat office and janpad offices with officers there presenting a variety of reasons, including passing the burden on each other, for denial of information.

As part of the efforts to deny information, one of the janpad CEOs even claimed that no probe was undertaken in the matter while others affirmed that a probe did take place.

During a WhatsApp hearing by information commissioner Rahul Singh on August 17, RTI activist Dwivedi, and two of the CEOs – Hanumana CEO Mungaram Mehra and former CEO of Raipur Karchuliyan Balwan Singh Mawase were present. Former Java Janpad CEO Akhil Shrivastava was absent, citing a medical emergency.

On a query from the information commissioner, Mawase claimed he had forwarded the desired information to the zila panchayat office on August 13, 2019, but he did not have a response to why he did not reply to a letter on January 4, 2020. CEO Mungaram Mehra too offered a circuitous reply, saying he had submitted a probe report to the ZP office but around two months ago when the probe was constituted.

The information commissioner made it clear that officers are free to run their offices the way they want to but warned them that they should be ready for action in case letters received by PIOs or deemed PIOs aren’t replied to.

The information commissioner reckoned that the government officers were trying to mislead the applicant. He issued show-cause notices of Rs 25,000 each to zila panchayat CEO Swapnil Wankhede, former Janpad CEO Balwan Singh Mawase, then zila panchayat PIO Vinayak Pandey and present PIO Abha Singh, and has summoned them to a WhatsApp hearing on August 19 for presenting their side.

Alleging that PIOs in Madhya Pradesh for long have been treating RTI queries like a "football", passing them to each other, information commissioner Rahul Singh told News18 that the PIOs in the state suffer from the "post office syndrome", sending the queries here and there without acting upon the applications. Transparency in government functioning is paramount for us, he said.