27-year-old Rajesh Serupally, an independent journalist and RTI activist, based in Nizamabad district, Telangana received a jolt after the Telangana State Development Planning Society (TSDPS) asked him to pay a whopping fee of Rs 20,30,960 including Goods and Services Tax (GST) of Rs 3,09,960 for disclosing rainfall data under the Right to Information Act.
Nizamabad has a total of 41 Automatic Weather Stations (AWS). An amount of Rs 3500 was charged to get data from each AWS, totalling to Rs 17,22,000, and an additional Rs 3,09,960 towards GST.
Lately, Rajesh has been working on a story relating to deficit rainfall in Nizamabad, and its impact on agriculture and farmers in the region.
To collect the rainfall data of the last one year (from June 2018 to May 2019), he initially approached the Nizamabad Chief Planning Officer (CPO). However, as the CPO failed to provide the data, Rajesh was forced to file an RTI query.
The query was then directed to Telangana State Development Planning Society who have been monitoring the weather, and providing all the rainfall data.
However, on July 30, Rajesh got a reply, in which the department had asked him to shell out Rs 20.30 lakh to avail the information. This response left Rajesh flummoxed.
“I was completely shocked!,” Rajesh said to TNM. He added, “What was more bizarre was that the department even including a GST charge of Rs 3 lakh. I honestly didn’t know how to react to it.”
“I have filed many RTIs earlier, and nobody has ever charged GST for an RTI query,” Rajesh said.
Prominent city-based RTI activist, Vijay Gopal said, “The government never charges GST fee on any RTI query. The amount is nominal. I think that the TSDPS department is not well informed about RTI. It is ridiculous.”
Rajesh added, “I don’t think anyone has filed an RTI query with TSDPS department.”
Agreeing to this, TSPDPS director in-charge Sudershan Reddy said, “Nobody had earlier asked us for rainfall data from Automatic Weather Stations through RTI.” Telangana has 1,044 AWS.
“Since the past one year, private insurance companies have been asking us for rainfall data, and we decided to monetise it. We made a policy of charging Rs 3,500 for data for each weather station. Based on that, he (Rajesh) was also asked to pay Rs 20 lakh.”
According to Sudershan Reddy, private companies have been asking for rainfall data to cross-check the claims of farmers who are beneficiaries of Pradhan Mantri Fasal Bima Yojana.
“How would we know that he is not an individual associated with the insurance companies, who is seeking this data for just Rs 10 on their behalf?” Sudershan Reddy asked.
Rajesh however opines that this data should be made public for the benefit of farmers and agriculture activists. “It is government data. They shouldn’t monetise it. Rainfall data is a great source for activists to find if a district is suffering from drought? It would be useful for farmers to claim weather based crop insurance,” he said.
Interestingly, the ruling TRS party had recently supported the BJP in making an amendment to the RTI Act 2005, in the Rajya Sabha. Activists claim the RTI Amendment Bill has diluted the Act itself, and also jeopardises the sovereignty of the states.