'My interest is to open up transparency to the people who unnecessary raise these issues. The prime minister has full right to go wherever he is going, but the question is why is he not transparent on expenditure.'
'When the prime minister went to the UN, he spoke of transparency. You are talking about it, but you are not complying with it. It shows hypocrisy.'
Commodore Lokesh Batra (retd) on why he filed an RTI application to find out how much the prime minister spent on his foreign visits.
How much money did Prime Minister Narendra Modi spend on his foreign visits?
Modi has visited 27 countries since assuming office in May 2014.
His predecessors Atal Bihari Vajpayee made 19 foreign trips incurring an expenditure of Rs 144 crore (Rs 1.44 billion) and Dr Manmohan Singh spent around Rs 699 crore (Rs 6.99 billion) in 10 years on 73 foreign trips.
Till date, there is no clarity on how much money Modi has spent on his foreign trips.
Commodore Lokesh Batra (retd), spoke to Syed Firdaus Ashraf/Rediff.com on why he felt the need to file an Right to Information petition to find out Modi's expenditure on his foreign visits.
Commodore Batra, left, below, served the Indian Navy from 1967 till 2002 when he retired.
What is this RTI plea that you filed on the prime minister's foreign travels?
When I was in the United States, I felt there is local expenditure also (for a prime minister's trip). A large expense is for chartered flights. Then there are other expenses like an advance team to check out which is a suitable hotel for the prime minister and security issues. So these kinds of expenses we don't realise.
After Modi visited 20 counties from Bhutan to Bangladesh, I filed an RTI application to find out the amount spent on the PM's visits. These details are available commonly on Wikipedia and also on the prime minister's Web site.
In my RTI petition, I had only asked for the total expenditure and the breakdown of the expenses. Then interesting things started coming out.
Indian missions abroad do not have the kind of budget from which the total expenditure takes place. Like Rs 13 crore (Rs 130 million) spent in Australia (on the prime minister's trip), because they spent that money on behalf of various public authorities of India. Like Prasar Bharati and Doordarshan, who pay for their teams to accompany the PM. Some is paid by the ministry of external affairs. Some amount they spend from their own funds.
So, I filed this RTI about the different countries where the prime minister visited. Is any event of the prime minister abroad sponsored by an outsider?
Another query was that in case the expenditure done on behalf of any Indian mission, please forward my RTI to them.
What was the answer you received?
It was quite a struggle. They started forwarding the queries. Very funny answers came out because I went through many appeals and the answers came after many struggles. Like the Canada embassy (high commission) gave me details for expenses in Toronto, Vancouver and Ottawa, after many appeals. Australia gave me complete details. In Sydney, they spent Rs 1 crore (Rs 10 million) plus for a six-hour visit.
Did you get the answer on how much money the prime minister spent on his trips abroad?
No. I have not got all the answers. In the US, the embassy refused to give me details. I got details of only 12, 14 countries and some partial details. That comes to about Rs 50 crore (Rs 500 million).
Are you saying there is no transparency from the PMO on this issue?
They are nicely saying that since the expenditure is debited to different people (government departments), probably they won't be having that record.
Was it the same case during Dr Manmohan Singh's tenure too?
There are guidelines that the government has to give suo motu proactive disclosure. (Section 4(1) (b) of the RTI Act lays down the information which should be disclosed by public authorities on a suo motu or proactive basis.) In that Clause 1.8 says the prime minister's foreign trip details must be given proactively. The other is that you can ask for the total expenditure.
However, security expenses may not be given -- like the cost of the Special Protection Group.
In this context, I was not worried about what is the amount spent. Because what is the outcome of that only time will tell us; how much FDI has come and such things, you know. My issue is that there are orders which say 'proactive' on the Central Information Commission Web site and for that I have to file an RTI.
Right now, the Web site has information on expenditure from Vajpayee to Manmohan Singh. The expenses of Modi's first trip to Bhutan is available. He spent Rs 2.5 crore (Rs 25 million). Only that is there.
I was curious. I want to study why the expenditure details takes almost two years to file. What is the procedure for bills to come and what is the procedure for payment? I asked for the laid-down procedure.
I also quoted that Manmohan Singh's payment is still not settled from September 7, 2013 to March 4, 2014. These bills are still under process.
If Modi's Bhutan trip was Rs 2.5 crore, then all places he visited must be running into hundreds of crores. So, the question is, why have the bills not been received? I am only asking for transparency.
(Note: Dr Manmohan Singh visited Russia for the G-20 summit (September 4 to 7, 2013); US (September 25 to October 1, 2013), Brunei and Indonesia (October 9 to 12, 2013), Russia and China (October 20 to 24, 2013) and Myanmar (March 3 to 4, 2014)) Source (external link)
Modi visit: Source (external link)
What do you want to achieve by filing this RTI plea? What is your interest?
My interest is to open up transparency to the people who unnecessarily raise these issues. The prime minister has the full right to go wherever he is going, but the question is why is he not transparent (on expenditure)?
When you do not become transparent as per your rules, it creates speculation. There is always a feeling that something is hidden.
Maybe the prime minister may not be aware about the questions you are raising.
He is fully aware.
So you think it will benefit the prime minister if he reveals how much money he spends on his foreign visits and how much he is getting in as FDI?
I feel he must follow norms that already exist; why should I file an RTI petition? Today, if you write anything against the government you get a lot of mails. You write five lines against the government on social media and you just see how many comments you get including abuses.
When the prime minister went to New York and the United Nations, he spoke of transparency. Now, the right to information goal is set by the United Nations. You have a rule, you are talking about it but you are not complying with it. It shows hypocrisy.
Can we say that you are filing this RTI to better our democracy?
Of course. My goal is transparency and people should not have to ask for it. The day proactive disclosure is done you don't have to ask the government. If proactive disclosure continues to rise, the number of RTI pleas will reduce.
IMAGE: Prime Minister Narendra Modi arrives at Vancouver International Airport in Richmond, British Columbia, Canada, in April. Photograph: Ben Nelms/Reuters