The fallout over an RTI that revealed money spent for Modi selfie booths at rail stations

Ajay Bose, a retired railway official, had filed an RTI query seeking details on the expenses associated with constructing Prime Minister Modi's 3D selfie booths in five Railway zones.
PM Modi selfie point at a railway station
PM Modi selfie point at a railway stationTwitter
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The Chief Public Relations Officer of Central Railways, Shivraj Manaspure, was abruptly transferred, just seven months into his appointment on December 29, 2023. The transfer came after he responded to a Right to Information (RTI) filed by a former railway official Ajay Bose, disclosing the costs associated with installing 3D Narendra Modi 'selfie points' at railway stations. The reason for his transfer was reportedly undisclosed, and he was not informed about his new posting.

The RTI response in question revealed that the Union government is allocating up to Rs 6.25 lakh for each permanent 3D selfie booth and Rs 1.25 lakh for each temporary booth featuring Prime Minister Narendra Modi's image at railway stations, according to a reply obtained from Central Railway. In total, the government is spending Rs 1.62 crore on the establishment of photo booths at railway stations, facilitating the public to take selfies with images of Modi. This expenditure does not include taxes, the RTI reply said.

Ajay Bose, who is also an RTI activist, filed the query seeking details on the expenses associated with constructing Prime Minister Modi's 3D selfie booths in five Railway zones: Central Railway, Western Railway, Northern Railway, North Western Railway, and Southern Railway. Bose received a response only from the Central Railway, while none of the other divisions provided information regarding the costs of setting up both temporary and permanent booths. 

The Central Railway has implemented selfie booths featuring Modi at 50 railway stations across five divisions in Mumbai, Bhusaval, Nagpur, Pune, and Solapur. Thirty Category A stations, including Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, Kalyan, Nagpur, and Betul, are designated for temporary installations, while 20 Category C stations, such as Karjat, Kasara, Latur, and Kopargaon have been equipped with permanent installations of Prime Minister Modi's 3D selfie booths.

In response to the controversy surrounding the disclosure of booth costs, the Indian Railways has implemented stricter norms for Zonal Railways providing information under the Right to Information (RTI) Act. The revised rules mandate that all RTI replies must undergo review by general managers of zonal railways or divisional railway managers. A notification issued by the Railway Board on December 28 said the quality of responses to RTIs handled by the Zonal Railways had declined and urged the need to adhere to the provisions of the RTI Act, 2005.

“Timelines for disposal of RTI applications were surpassed in many cases resulting in a large number of appeals filed before the First Appellate Authority or the Central Information Commission, not only increasing the quantum of work but bringing disrepute to the organisation,” the notification stated. To address these issues, the notification specified that a decision has been taken to ensure strict compliance with the timelines for disposal as prescribed in the Right to Information (RTI) Act at any cost.

Historically, the Railways operated with a Public Information Officer and Chief Public Information Officer as per the provisions of the Right to Information (RTI) Act, 2005, responsible for providing information sought by petitioners. According to The Hindu, as reported by sources in the Southern Railway, general managers and divisional railway managers did not hold any role as appellate or competent authorities under the Act.

The BJP government, under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, has been recognised for progressively restricting the scope of the Right to Information (RTI) during its ten-year tenure. In August 2023, the Rajya Sabha passed the Digital Personal Data Protection Bill, 2023. While awaiting President Droupadi Murmu's assent to become India’s first data protection law, the bill has sparked concerns regarding the potential dilution of the Right to Information (RTI) Act. RTI activists have also been subjected to harassment, intimidation, and physical assaults and in some instances, been killed.

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