Intelligence Bureau gets nosey over RTI request on ONGC operations in the Cauvery delta
In what could make whistle-blowers and RTI activists feel threatened, a woman RTI applicant is allegedly being followed by sleuths from Intelligence Bureau (IB) and Special Branch of the Criminal Inve
CHENNAI: In what could make whistle-blowers and RTI activists feel threatened, a woman RTI applicant is allegedly being followed by sleuths from Intelligence Bureau (IB) and Special Branch of the Criminal Investigation Department for seeking information on Oil and Natural Gas Corporation’s (ONGC) operations in the Cauvery delta.
In the last three months, police officials have visited R Vijayalakshmi’s office six times - three by an official from IB and the rest by Special Branch-CID officials of Tamil Nadu police.
All were prompted by RTI applications filed by her seeking information about ONGC’s environmental track record. But, the question can the Public Information Officers of ONGC and Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board (TNPCB) to whom the RTIs were addressed, reveal the identity of the applicant.
On January 8, 2014, the Department of Personnel and Training under Ministry of Personnel, Public Grievances and Pension, Government of India, issued an Office Memorandum that was forwarded to Chief Secretaries of all States/UTs, which says: “The authority should take appropriate measure to hide information with regard to personal details of the activist to avoid any harassment by the persons having vested interest.” Also, Section 6(2) in the RTI Act, 2005, says that an applicant making a request for information shall not be required to give any reason for requesting the information or any other personal details except those that may be necessary for contacting him.
Vijayalakshmi told Express the information sought by her was pretty simple and straight forward, which should have been ideally put in public domain voluntarily in the websites of ONGC and regulatory authorities like TNPCB and Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change.
“The information includes documents like environmental clearances, licences to establish exploratory or production wells and licences to operate them, reports of analyses of air and water quality, Environmental Impact Assessments, data on total number of wells in the delta and the break-up of the number of wells currently in operation, and the number that have been abandoned or closed. All the information is important and relevant from a public health, public safety and environmental perspective,” she said.
The first RTI application was filed before the PIO of ONGC Egmore office on August 7 and the reply was sent on September 11 where ONGC denied the information sought under Section 8(1)(e) of RTI Act. “I have no problem with information being denied, but around the same time an IB official came searching for me, which is totally unwarranted and I take it as intimidation.
I was not there in the office when the police came, but they reportedly sought my personal information like marital status, residential address and family details. The last visit was by a sub-inspector Renuka from SB-CID on November 29,” she said and added that an official complaint has been lodged with Central Information Commission and State Information Commission for which no acknowledgment has been received so far.
Writer and social activist Nityanand Jayaraman, who is part of Chennai Solidarity Group for which Vijaylakshmi has been volunteering for past six months, claimed: “One CID sub-inspector who identified himself as Perumal spoke to me at length over phone in late October wanting to know the personal details of the applicant, including marital status, educational qualification, place of residence and profession.
The officer explained he wanted the information because the applicant had sought information regarding ONGC, and that the government was looking into the possible role of anti-national actors. Later, a lady officer visited our office at Besant Nagar on November 29. Our’s is a voluntary group that ropes in city-based solidarity for community campaigns on social and environmental justice. What’s anti-national about it?” he wondered.
He said this was only a mild version of the harassment faced by delta farmers who are concerned about the environmental impact of hydrocarbon extraction. Already, in Nannilam and Kathiramangalam, police have come down heavily on villagers despite clear evidence that ONGC had violated the law. In both cases, police and district administration have arrested villagers who spoke out, and threatened others with similar action. In both cases, the police and district administration have failed to protect the public and enforce the law, opting instead to protect the offender and be a party to the violation of the laws of the land.
In Kathiramangalam, on June 30, an ONGC oil pipeline leaked its toxic contents into a certified organic farm and refused to clean it up. The farm has not yet been cleaned up, and the oil continues to leak into the irrigation canal that supplies water to hundreds of acres. The oil spill damaged and continues to damage the irrigation canal - a vital public property. Ironically, no case has been filed against ONGC, but cases alleging damage to public property have been filed against villagers who protested against ONGC’s oil spill, said Anti-Methane Project Movement coordinator T. Jayaraman, who is a retired professor of history.
“I along with a few other villagers have been arrested twice and false charges were framed, including attempted murder. I was put in jail for nearly 50 days before given conditional bail by Madurai High Court bench. Clearly, police are acting at the behest of ONGC,” he said.
Just routine inquiry: CID
CID officer Perumal, who visited Vijayalakshmi office, told Express it was only a routine inquiry. “My office has been asked to collect intelligence about Vijayalakshmi and I went there to seek some basic information.
It is not that we are putting any charges or a case has been filed. Why should the information be hidden, if they didn’t do anything wrong? I spoke to Nityananad Jayaraman and he refused to share the information about Vijayalakshmi,” he said and didn’t comment on whether the request to collect the intelligence came from ONGC or TNPCB.