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The Greater Chennai Corporation has sometimes faced stringent judicial strictures over allegations of corruption, one of the cases being H Lakshmi vs The Commissioner (2018), where the Madras High Court ordered it to transfer all its vigilance staff en masse in a case of encroachment of public land by a hospital.
The court caustically observed that IAS officers serving the civic body were merely plodding through their tenures, until the next posting, unmindful of pervasive corruption in the administration. While the GCC now has an elected council, and policy is not made by executives, many of the observations of the court pertain equally to the present regime where politicians and officials work in tandem. One of the biggest irritants for both councillors and officials is the Namma Chennai app introduced for citizens to lodge complaints.
Over the past four years, many confrontations have occurred over complaints lodged on the app, invariably because the identity and information of complainants were leaked to those responsible for offences or deficiencies ranging from encroachment to bad food standards, mosquito menace, broken roads and missing street lights.
Over the past four years, many confrontations have occurred over complaints lodged on the app, invariably because the identity and information of complainants were leaked to those responsible for offences or deficiencies ranging from encroachment to bad food standards, mosquito menace, broken roads and missing street lights
Police summons now
Most recently, the GCC staff apparently leaked the information about a complainant to a food outlet, Anburaj Chicken Stall, Mylapore, about which a complaint regarding food safety had been filed. The episode degenerated into full-fledged intimidation, say media reports, with the local police inspector M Ravi issuing a summons to the complainant on the ground that he was causing mental agony to the operator of the food outlet.
A similar issue occurred in May 2022 in which an Anna University biomaterials researcher, Preethi Ramadoss, and her mother were the target of intimidation by, as she put it, “a group of ten workers allegedly belonging to the GCC”, for complaining about the mosquito menace in the area. They arrived at the home of the complainant in what was clearly a show of muscle and told the family not to lodge complaints on the app.
The entry of the Greater Chennai Police into the fray in Mylapore this time adds a different dimension to the issue, prompting comments on social media on the growing effort to intimidate individual citizens over filing of complaints. Interestingly, the Namma Chennai app was launched in January 2018, during the AIADMK regime by then Minister S P Velumani, among the list of ‘smart initiatives’ for Chennai.
In some instances, use of the Right to Information Act in and around Chennai for civic grievances has also resulted in intimidation. In one instance five years ago, builders got hold of the personal details of an RTI applicant, and she was allegedly threatened in Pallavaram by the offenders.
Ironically, the RTI Act is also used to commit fraud by unscrupulous officials. In Kodambakkam, residents of an apartment were surprised when they received “replies” to RTI petitions they had not filed from the Corporation, relating to unauthorised construction in the neighbourhood, stating that “action” had been taken. Apparently, fraudulent petitions had been created in the name of the apartment block secretary to extort money from a businessman who was building a large house next door.
In some instances, use of the Right to Information Act in and around Chennai for civic grievances has also resulted in intimidation. In one instance five years ago, builders got hold of the personal details of an RTI applicant, and she was allegedly threatened in Pallavaram by the offenders
Controversies around the Namma Chennai app are rooted in the transparency that data brings to civic administration. Since there is no discretion available to either the local Councillor or the Zonal GCC staff, and the complaint must be investigated and closed, there is evidently a concerted attempt to shut down complaints through intimidation. The absence of legal provisions relating to violation of data privacy also emboldens the officials, as they will not face prosecution.
Under the Digital Personal Data Protection Bill, 2022, which is yet to achieve consensus due to its serious impact on the RTI Act, the GCC and its authorised officials would be a ‘data fiduciary’, defined as a person “who alone or in conjunction with other persons determines the purpose and means of processing of personal data.” Those in possession of the data for processing also have a liability under the proposed law.
Leaking personal information by unscrupulous and corrupt officials to offenders would qualify as a major offence with criminal penalties for those involved. The DMK government need not wait for the Central law to rein in lawless elements in the government, and can issue its own instructions governing privacy of data, prescribing penalties for breach and unlawful disclosure.
The new rules need to exempt only private data covered by public interest clauses of the RTI Act about individuals. The Information Technology (Reasonable security practices and procedures and sensitive personal data or information) Rules, 2011, are clearly outdated, and prescribe no worthwhile remedies for malafide disclosures.
The Police summons in Mylapore have thrown further dark hints of corruption involving petty businessmen, considering the large flow of bribes everyday from small traders to officials and politicians. Clearly, the DMK government cannot afford to mar its reputation by allowing graft to go unchecked and a sub-culture of lumpen intimidation to hold sway over the average citizen.
Chief Minister M K Stalin should order the complaints lodged over the Namma Chennai app to be visually mapped to the individual GCC wards and displayed as a dashboard on the website of the Corporation. This will bring pressure on officials to deal with these without delay, and acknowledge the power of transparency.
Ahead of the GCC Council elections last year, there was much apprehension that the democratic system of representation could degenerate into local influence-peddling, collection of bribes for house-building, protection money from petty business and lumpen intimidation of the average citizen. The early experiences of the husbands of many women Councillors functioning as the elected representative exacerbated this public perception. Even the use of the Namma Chennai app is now turning hazardous. The State government and the Police brass must crack down on such lawlessness without delay.
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