Two days ago, media reported that according to the government of India, foreign trips of Prime Minister Narendra Modi cost over Rs 2,021 crore, which was spent on chartered flights, maintenance of aircraft and hotline facilities.
Minister of State for External Affairs V K Singh also listed the countries Modi had visited and also the top 10 countries from where India has received the maximum Foreign Direct Investment inflows. In 2017, it reached
Maintenance of the PM’s aircraft: Rs 1,583.18 crore, chartered flights: Rs 429.25 crore and hotline expenditure: Rs 9.11 crore. Modi visited over 55 countries in 48 foreign trips since becoming the Prime Minister of India in May 2014. He had multiple visits to some countries. However, the details exclude the expenditure on hotline facilities during Modi’s foreign visits in the year 2017-18 and 2018-19.
The BJP released in June 2018, an official statement on the foreign visits of the Prime Minister comparing with former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh as follows: For former PM Manmohan Singh: Rs 386.35 crore was spent on 31 foreign trips entailing 131 days abroad between 2009 and 2013. For Narendra Modi: Rs 387.24 crore was spent on 36 foreign trips entailing 155 days abroad between 2014 and 2018.
The government of India, like any other government, incurs huge expenditure on foreign trips of the VVIPs like President, Vice President and the Prime Minister etc. The details of expenditure, names of the persons who accompanied and the result achieved if any of those trips is the information the people have a right to have. The tax payer’s money is paid for these trips. They are not personal trips and hence not personal information. If the leaders have achieved any successes or brought in huge investments or researched technologies into the country, why not they share it with the people?
The Central Information Commission, in an order, has agreed that it goes without saying that there will be expenditure incurred for every VVIP visit made by IAF aircraft, whether it is domestic visit or foreign visit and debited under some head, to one or other public authority. That means there will be expenditure incurred on account of such visits abroad by IAF aircrafts used. This was held by CIC on 22.05.2018, in case file No. CIC/IAIRF/C/2017/149613/SD, Commodore Lokesh K Batra Vs CPIO, IAF, HQ.
In other cases also, the CIC explained that only the information about SPG details regarding the personnel accompanying VVIPS to foreign countries could be exempted under the RTI, but every other information which has nothing to do with security shall be disclosed. In another instance, the CIC directed the government to give the names of non-officials who accompanied the VVIP at least. For instance: CIC Order File No.CIC/SM/A/2012/000898 dated 10.12.2012, in Subhash C Agarwal Vs CPIO President Secretariat and CPIO, MEA.
Similarly, in case number CIC/PMOIN/A/2017/605624 dated 18.01.2018, in Neeraj Sharma Vs CPIO, PMO., the CIC directed CPIO, PMO to provide “name/list of the private persons (who do not have any connection with the security) and who accompanied the Prime Minister on his international visits at public cost during 2014 to 2017 may be provided to the appellant.
In another second appeal No. CIC/MOEAF/A/2017/609687 dated 23.08.2018, Karbi Das and CPIO, MEA, the CIC said, “List of private persons (not linked with security) who travelled with the Prime Minister of India at government expenditure should be provided to the appellant redacting names of other officials, within 15 days.”
Question remains: Why the names of officials cannot be given? Why their names should be redacted? If the names of officers travelled with PM on official work cannot be disclosed, then entire details about the visit of Prime Minister also can be denied on the same logic! Because it is official, it has to be disclosed, except where national security is involved.
Surprisingly, the government denied this information to MPs also. The ground is that information sought is ‘sensitive’! In RS response on Q&A No. 1726 of 27.12.2018 of details of delegates: The government has denied information to Parliament concerning details of past and present PMs’ delegation (except media): i.e. names and designation of the persons, official and non-official, who accompanied both the Prime Ministers during their foreign tours, saying its sensitive in nature, the same is not enclosed.
Another surprise is that the government has not disclosed even the name of the Ministers who accompanied the Prime Minister. This is proof: Response to RS Question No. 328 dated 13.12.2018, no response given by the government to query (b) that is "the name of the Ministers who accompanied the Prime Minister in those visits.”
How the names of officials and non-officials, who accompanied two Prime Ministers (Manmohan Singh and Narendra Modi) be considered as sensitive information? What is the meaning of ‘sensitive information’ and whether being ‘sensitive’ a valid cause for denying the privilege of Parliamentarian seeking accountability from the government and right of citizen to know how his money is being spent?
In fact, every VVIP has to publish on his own, complete information including expenditure about their foreign trips along with the names of accompanying persons. For instance, the Vice President’s website contains such information. (http://vicepresidentofindia.nic.in/foreign-tours). Lokesh Batra explained that two responses in Rajya Sabha revealed the expenditure as Rs 2,45,27,465 towards Air India chartered flight for three-day PM’s visit to Bhutan in June 2014.
In response to unstarred question No 1726 to be answered on 27.12.2018 in Rajya Sabha posed by Dr Sanjay Singh, the Ministry of External Affairs answered: “The objective of PM’s visits abroad has been to enhance mutual understanding and to strengthen our relations with these countries across a wide range of sectors including trade, investment, technology, development partnership and to enhance people-to-people ties. The Prime Minister’s delegation on foreign visits usually consists of representatives from the Prime Minister’s Office, the security agencies, Ministry of External Affairs and media agencies. These officials are selected on the basis of functional requirements of that specific foreign trip. All these officials perform their specific duties assigned to them during the visit.
These officials carry out their work in close proximity to the Prime Minister in many situations. As the information sought is sensitive in nature, the same is not enclosed. As regards, non-governmental delegates, it has been the practice that a media contingent accompanies the Prime Minister on board the special ANI. In the past, it included agencies like PTI and UNI. The full details of the media persons, both official and non-officials, who accompanied both Prime Ministers from 2009-2018 during their foreign trips are placed below. The details of total expenditure of each journey of both the Prime Ministers and investments received from other countries in response to visits of two PMs were also given in this written reply.
Thus, except the names from media, the government thus has denied the details of private or public persons who travelled with the Prime Minister, without giving any valid reason. Every public official, from Prime Minister to an Under Secretary, should disclose the complete expenditure of their official tours within or beyond the nation along with the names who accompanied them and the result they have achieved from such trip. This should be included in the list under Section 4(1)(b) of Right to Information Act, 2005 imposing voluntary disclosure obligation on public authorities. Public interest demands that the pubic servants, especially the Prime Minister, explain who travelled with him abroad and why?