Information Commissioner Brings MP Cooperative Societies Running PDS Ration Shops under the Ambit of RTI
Many of the ration shops which provide food grains from the Food Corporation of India (FCI) to the poor under the public distribution system (PDS) are run by cooperative societies, the most significant example being Tamil Nadu, which sells 95% of the food grains through these societies.
Salespersons are employed at the ration or fair price shops by cooperative societies that run them. In Madhya Pradesh (MP), several salespersons were unsure of their salary package due to discrepancies. This propelled them to file an application under the Right to Information (RTI) Act to obtain information on their salary scales. However, the information was denied by the public information officer (PIO) of the cooperative housing societies, stating that the department does not come under the ambit of the RTI Act.
In a landmark order, MP state information commissioner (SIC) Rahul Singh (who has just retired from his position, leaving behind a trail of good orders) directed that "all cooperative societies in Madhya Pradesh dealing with the procurement of grains and the operation of ration shops be brought under the RTI Act with immediate effect to tighten the noose on scams occurring within cooperative societies." 
Mr Singh also mandated suo moto disclosure of the salary of salespersons working at ration shops on district portals across the state.
This is the first time cooperative societies would come under the RTI Act in Madhya Pradesh. This, states Mr Singh, is a significant decision in favour of the state's farmers as scams related to fertilisers, seeds, and grain procurement would be curbed.
Elaborating on his order, he observed that “the order emphasises transparency and accountability in the operations of cooperative societies involved in grain procurement and the PDS to reduce corruption. Farmers often complain about irregularities in these systems but due to lack of transparency in the working of the cooperative societies, it hinders problem resolution. The order will now make the inner workings of these government societies open to the public.”
Qualifying the inclusion of the cooperative societies, Mr Singh noted in his order that “A public authority is defined under the RTI Act as any institution under the government's control or substantially financed by the government. However, during the hearing, the department insisted that it does not fall under RTI.” 
Mr Singh independently conducted an inquiry under the civil procedure code and found several government orders and notifications which proved that these cooperative societies are, indeed, under government control. 
He discovered that all these societies exceed the threshold of Rs50,000 under the MP Appeal & Rules of RTI Act which is significant government funding. His investigation revealed shocking discrepancies in the payment of salaries to salespersons. Some of them had not received wages for the past several years. He then directed that information on salaries be uploaded on district portals every three months.
The principal secretary of the cooperatives department has been asked to ensure that the mechanism to provide the information under RTI is effective within one month of the order. After this order, RTI applicants seeking details related to cooperative societies can file an RTI with the district deputy commissioner of cooperative department.  
Mr Singh has also ordered all deputy commissioners in all districts as PIOs and joint commissioners of the cooperative department to be appointed as first appellate authorities (FAAs). 
Mr Singh’s decision was based on the order by the Aurangabad bench of the Bombay High Court (HC) to bring all cooperative societies under RTI, holding the registrar of cooperative societies accountable for providing information.
RTI activist Vijay Kumbhar states, “The Bombay HC has also opined that the cooperative movement is a socio-economic and moral movement. In that, the general public has a definite place, and its participation is but natural.”
“Even before the enactment of the RTI Act, the 97th amendment to the Constitution of India, way back in 1985, has described that cooperative societies are governed by statute from their inception. They are created and controlled by statute. Which means they automatically come under the RTI Act. This became more known due to the Bombay HC’s judgement,” he added.
(Vinita Deshmukh is consulting editor of Moneylife. She is also the convener of the Pune Metro Jagruti Abhiyaan. She is the recipient of prestigious awards like the Statesman Award for Rural Reporting, which she won twice in 1998 and 2005 and the Chameli Devi Jain Award for outstanding media person for her investigation series on Dow Chemicals. She co-authored the book "To The Last Bullet - The Inspiring Story of A Braveheart - Ashok Kamte" with Vinita Kamte and is the author of "The Mighty Fall".)
Meenal Mamdani
3 months ago
Rahul Singh has been an exceptionally supportive individual of the RTI act.
Too bad that he is retiring but wonder if he could continue in some capacity as a resource person for those who file RTI applications.
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