The Shri Ram Janmbhoomi Teerth Kshetra (SBJBTKshetra) was constituted by the central government via a gazette notification on 5 February 2020, based on the Supreme Court’s directions in the Ayodhya Land Verdict on 9 November 2019.
A year has passed, but strangely, the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) does not have details of the SRJBTKshetra’s Central Public Information Officer (CPIO). Section 5(1) of the RTI Act says the CPIO should be appointed at the earliest after the establishment of the Trust.
As per media reports, the Trust has collected around Rs 2,100 crore, as early as January 2021. And most of it is public money. Hence, it is indeed important that the Trust maintains transparency on how this money is being spent by sharing information under the Right To Information (RTI) Act. But that doesn't seem to be the situation.
An RTI was filed with the MHA and SRJBTKshetra seeking “details of the Central Public Information Officers (CPIO) and First Appellate Authority (FAA) for the public authority Shri Ram Janmbhoomi Teerth Kshetra”.
In the RTI reply on 20 January 2021, the MHA did not provide details of the CPIO or FAA of SRJBTKshetra and mentioned that “the said Trust is an autonomous organisation/body”.
But the MHA seems to be unaware of the provisions of the RTI Act.
“The (RTI) Act makes no exception for autonomous bodies. AIIMS (All India Institute of Medical Science) or AMU (Aligarh Muslim University) are autonomous bodies created by acts of Parliament, they are covered by RTI aren’t they?”Sanjay Hegde, Senior Advocate
Surprisingly, the SRJBTKshetra did not reply to the RTI query at all.
Based on the two RTI responses, one of them a 'no response', the applicant Neeraj Sharma, filed a First Appeal with the MHA on 24 February 2021, seeking an answer to the same query.
Once again, in its response on 8 March 2021, the MHA said that they do not have the information,
“CPIO (Central Public Information Officer of MHA) is bound to provide only that information which is available with him. It is important to note that only such information can be supplied under the Act, which is available and existing and is held by the public authority or is held under the control of the public authority. The Public information Officer is not supposed to create information or do research on behalf of any citizen.”
In its RTI response the MHA has stated two pertinent things:
- The Ram Janmbhoomi Trust is an autonomous organisation/body
- Information on SRJBTKshetra’s CPIO is not available with the MHA
Interestingly, nowhere in this second RTI reply does the MHA say that the Ram Janmbhomi Trust ‘does not come under RTI’. Then why is the MHA not sharing the information?
Former Information Commissioner Shailesh Gandhi said,
“Whether SRJBTKshetra is an autonomous body or not, it is irrelevant. It will still be called a ‘public authority’ and come under the RTI if it falls under the Section 2(h) of the RTI Act, 2005.”
Ram Janmbhoomi Trust Should Be Under RTI: Here's Why
The RTI Act, 2005, states that all ‘public authorities’ come under the purview of the Act and are liable to reply to RTI queries. To avoid any confusion, the RTI Act clearly defines ‘public authority’.
The Act states:
It is to be noted that Section 2(h) of the RTI Act, 2005 defines the term “Public Authority”, which means any authority or body or institution of self-government established or constituted:
(a) By or under the Indian Constitution;
(b) By any other law made by Parliament;
(c) By any other law made by state legislature;
(d) By notification issued or order made by the appropriate government and includes any: (I) Body owned, controlled or substantially financed; (II) Non-government organisation substantially financed, directly or indirectly by funds provided by the appropriate government.
Please note that the Act says that ‘any’ authority constituted by ‘notification issued’ by the ‘appropriate Government’ is a ‘public authority’. Before we get into the details of notification, let’s also read how the RTI Act defines ‘appropriate government’.
Section 2(a) of the RTI Act, 2005, defines the term “appropriate government” in relation to public authority, which is established, constituted, owned, controlled, or substantially financed by the funds provided directly or indirectly— (I) By the central government or the Union territory administration; (II) By the state government.
The MHA issued the gazette notification on the constitution of SRJBTKshetra on 5 February 2020, and that makes the Trust a public authority.
The notification said,
“...In compliance with the directions of the Hon’ble Supreme Court... the Government of India has approved the Scheme, and the said Scheme has made necessary provisions in regard to functioning of the Trust including matters relating to management of the Trust, powers of the trustees including construction of the temple and all necessary, incidental and supplemental matters thereto.”
Since the government had issued a gazette notification, there is no room for doubt that it is not a public authority.
“The MHA’s RTI reply itself admits that the Trust has been constituted by a notification dated 5-02-2020. Thus it falls squarely within the definition of public authority and must submit to RTI queries and follow the law.”Shailesh Gandhi, former Information Commissioner
The RTI Act, 2005, empowers citizens to access information that was otherwise denied to them.
Media reports reveal that on 15 January, the Trust projected an estimate of Rs 1,100 crore in its kitty. Following that, a 44-day fund raising campaign was launched by Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) for building the Ram Temple. During that campaign, by the end of February 2021, VHP reportedly managed to collect another Rs 1,000 crore as donation from people. So the SRJBTKshetra Trust is in possession of at least around Rs 2,100 crore.
Recently, on 13 June, Akhilesh Yadav's Samajwadi Party (SP) and Arvind Kejriwal's Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), accused the SRJBTKshetra Trust of a land scam, in which the price of a plot of land acquired by the Trust, changed from Rs 2 crore to Rs 18.5 crore per piece in just 10 minutes.
Considering that crores of rupees have been donated to SRJBTKshetra Trust by common citizens of the country, don’t they have the right to know how their hard-earned money is going to be utilised in the construction of the Ram Temple in Ayodhya?
The Quint has written to the MHA and SRJBTKshetra for their response, which is awaited.