Defense Aviation Post: New Delhi: Saturday, April 29, 2017.
The issue of opaqueness in the financial management of the non-public funds in the Indian Air Force has come to public glare after the Chief Information Commissioner (CIC) advised the Indian Air Force to improve its information disbursal system to meet the requirements of the Right To Information Act, given its failure to dispose of a huge number of RTI applications filed by former wing commander Sanjeev Sharma.
A file image of Indian Air Force. Reuters
The CIC advisory created a buzz in the media about the lack of transparency in the management of non-public funds of the Air Force, including the officers' mess. Disposing 1,288 complaints filed by Sharma, over non-receipt of information, Chief Information Commissioner Divya Prakash Sinha opined that the crux of these RTI applications has been the lack of transparency in the operation and execution of the activities of non-public fund ventures.
In the Indian Air Force, non-public fund ventures are the organisations which are mostly funded by officials of the force. These funds include Officers Mess, Senior Non−commissioned Officers (SNCO) Mess, AF Wives Welfare Associations, Canteen Stores Department (CSD), President Service Institute (PSI), AOC/Cos Contingency Fund, AF gas agencies, AF schools, AF Sports Complex, Race Course, AF Museum, AF Naval Housing Board, AF Auditorium, Centre for Air Power Studies, AF Group Insurance Society, AF Benevolent Association and AF Association.
The CIC advised, "A considered attempt should be made to bring such information which affects the fees and subscriptions deposited by the members of IAF fraternity in the public domain so that the paraphernalia around the probable misuse of such funds is not attributed to deliberate and mala fide tactics.”
Sharma in his RTI applications raised serious questions about the financial integrity of the non-public funds managed by the Indian Air force. Information related to income and expenditure of various forms of non-public funds on farewell parties, residences of officers, Air Force schools, PSI, SNCOs mess, Airmen Mess, DSC Mess were sought by him.
Significantly, farewell parties organised in the Officers Mess and gifts given to various personalities were also included in his list of queries.
Many of the queries related to the non-public funds were turned down stating the reason that the organisations in question were not "public authorities" as defined by the RTI Act, as they were run by fees and subscriptions paid by the officers.
The another ground for rejecting the applications was that the exercise of providing such a huge number of application would disproportionately divert the resources of the public authority and would be detrimental to the safety or preservation of the record in question. Section 7(9) exempts public authorities from providing such information.
But the CIC held the view that RTI applications where singular information was sought, for instance, the income and expenditure of non-public funds as was the case in most of the RTI applications filed by Sharma, is a single query. Similarly, disposal of appellant's personal applications does not warrant invoking Section 7(9) because if they were taken individually the RTI Applications could have been responded to with the information as per availability.
Sharma in his complaint to the CIC also alleged corruption in non-public funds of the Indian Air Force and that there is a parallel economy running inside the fraternity. The complainant raised the issue of funds allocated in the name of non-public funds being misused for personal interests within the hierarchy and that it is used as a source of income rather than the welfare of the forces.
In this regard, the CI advised, "There is no doubt that establishments, where funds are raised from member contributions, remain at the risk of misappropriations and unaccountability. Therefore, it is in the best of interests that there should be maximum disclosure and minimum restraint on nondisclosure of the working and management of these non-public funds.”
The RTI applications also highlighted violation of the RTI Act by the Indian Air Force, by not engaging an adequate number of Central Public Information Officers (CPIOs) and Assistant Public Information Officers (APIOs) in the force.
"The lack of a sufficient number of CPIOs/APIOs in one of the three largest wings of the Ministry of Defence raises a serious concern regarding the kind of importance that is accorded to the provisions of the RTI Act,” the information commission observed.
Section 5 of the RTI Act implemented in the year 2005 mandated all the public authorities to designate as many officers as Central Public Information Officers or State Public Information Officers, as the case may be, in all administrative units or offices under it. A lack of an appropriate number of CPIOs/APIOs in IAF as observed by the CIC is seen as a violation of the abovesaid provision of the RTI Act.
Though the CIC also chided the complainant for not systematically submitting the application. It said, “However noble the end of this vociferous attempt of bringing about probity in the functioning of IAF would have been, the fact remains that the means adopted by the appellant regrettably speaks volumes of his ignorance of the spirit of the RTI Act." But Sharma's effort seems to have brought to light important issues related to transparency in the management of the non-public fund ventures of the IAF.
The applicant had submitted a whopping 6,443 RTI applications to the various wings of the Indian Air Force out of which 1,288 applications reached the CIC’s table due to non-receipt of information.
The commission also criticised the applicant for his impracticable demand to get a reply on such a huge number of RTI applications stating, "It appears that the appellant has grossly misconceived the idea of exercising his Right to Information as being absolute and unconditional. It is rather unfortunate that even the best of intentions have to not only stand the test of procedural requirements and fetters laid down in the RTI Act but also stand the test of practicality, a notion well recognised by superior courts through various judgments such as the Supreme Court's observation in 2011 case of CBSE versus Aditya Bandhopadhyay and others.