Even as the Planning Commission's Rs. 30-lakh expenditure for renovation of toilets hogs the headlines, recently acquired RTI information shows that toilets at the Press Club of India here were built using Rs.1.5 lakh granted from the Maharashtra Chief Minister's Relief Fund in 1998.
That query had, in fact, been filed by current Central Information Commissioner Shailesh Gandhi during his early days as an RTI activist in Maharashtra. “It must have been 2004 or 2005, and I had requested information about the CM's Relief Fund under the Maharashtra state RTI Act,” Mr. Gandhi recalls.
His requests were initially denied on the grounds that the Fund was a private trust. Repeated appeals finally revealed that the Fund, meant for victims of natural calamities, communal riots, Naxalism and accidents, had been disbursing money to beneficiaries as varied as a swimming club, a fine arts hall, a strategic studies institute, Raj Bhavan, and, of course, Delhi's media persons.
“It was wrong for the Relief Fund to have given the money, and similarly, it was wrong for the Press Club to have accepted it. It reflects badly on both,” says Mr. Gandhi, adding, tongue in cheek: “Of course, at Rs.1.5 lakh, those were very cheap toilets going by today's standards.”
Today's leadership at the Press Club dismisses the 1998 grant as ancient history, but admits that they still accept money from Chief Ministers across the country. “I don't want to comment on the Maharashtra case because it was long before my time,” says Press Club of India president T. R. Ramachandran. Asked about current policy, he says: “We ourselves ask for grants from States, and invite them for ‘Meet the Press' events…whenever CMs offer grants, we do accept it, due to our financial constraints. But we don't take money from a Relief Fund.”
He says a Rs.1.5-lakh contribution would be considered peanuts today. “No one contributes less than Rs. 10 lakh. That's the kind of money we get from CMs. In fact, the Kerala Government recently gave us Rs.25 lakh, but that was formally approved by the State Assembly.”