Legal route: Judicious use of RTI Act will help get information on what is due.

What does a property buyer do about bad infrastructure and lack of amenities after having invested in a high-cost plot in an approved layout? Many investors who buy a plot of land, even one approved by the Chennai Metropolitan Development Authority or the Directorate of Town and Country Planning find that they get poor amenities on the ground. Voluntary disclosure of the facilities that should form part of the layout based on the approval conditions is often weak or non-existent.

The property owners of Jeeva Nagar, a CMDA-approved layout at Kattupakkam near Poonamallee on the city outskirts, falling under the jurisdiction of the Mangadu Town Panchayat, turned to the Right to Information Act, 2005, to know more about their area. They used the law to cut through opaque government and extract relevant information.

A plain paper application from individuals, a ten rupee court fee stamp and despatch by Registered Post to the appropriate officer in the Town Panchayat secured for the residents the information that numerous phone calls and personal entreaties could not.

The layout as it was originally sold contained mud roads. The roads earmarked were not elevated to be on par with neighbouring municipal wards and therefore became a trough during monsoon. Neither were they black-topped.

Sympathetic hearing

In the first monsoon in 2004 after the formation of the layout, most of the layout was submerged and so were the mud roads, cutting off all access from the Mount-Poonamallee Road about 500 metres away. Little progress was made by the first home owners when they approached the Town Panchayat; the local body gave a sympathetic hearing but did not commit itself to any concrete action. Officials explained that amenities could be provided only when more houses came up. But then, without access, new houses could not be built. Given the stalemate, the few early residents remained marooned in their homes.

The property owners then initiated a series of steps, beginning with the use of the Internet to start a blog that highlighted their problems. They created an email address, to communicate quickly and organise themselves. Next, they took recourse to the Right to Information Act, and filed a petition with the Executive Officer of the Mangadu Town Panchayat, who is the Public Information Officer under the Act.

Key questions

The petition posed key questions such as the quantum of funds remitted for layout approval by the promoter; the funds spent by the panchayat for roads every year since the formation of the layout; whether steps had been taken to provide street lighting and whether the Panchayat had secured the land provided under Open Space Reservation to prevent encroachment.

The Panchayat responded at the end of the 30-day deadline stipulated by the RTI Act. What the property owners learned was revealing: a sum of Rs.2.45 lakhs had been remitted as Panchayat Layout fees by the promoter and another Rs.90,000 was received by CMDA as development charges. The Panchayat had issued nine building licences (as of August 2007) and received fees of Rs. 20,560 (CMDA) and Rs. 84,455 (Town Panchayat).

The Panchayat acknowledged in its reply to the petition that for the three years since the formation of the layout, the expenditure on road laying in Jeeva Nagar was "nil." The Panchayat, however, added that Rs. five lakhs was proposed to be spent with Council sanction under the "Anna Marumalarchi Thittam" in 2007-08 for the formation of a single road for the big layout.

In response to a second RTI petition filed in August, the Panchayat replied that it was not feasible to elevate interior roads in the Nagar to avoid monsoon flooding. However, an item on the subject would be placed before the Council for future action. Street lighting could be provided only after completing the laying of the sole road approved by the Council.

These responses secured by force of law highlights the empowerment of property owners through the RTI Act to obtain vital information on their valuable investments, which official agencies and local bodies do not usually part with on request.

The scope of the RTI Act extends to the smallest Panchayat. The president of the local body is the Public Information Officer and is obliged to reply to petitions; many presidents do perform that function without cause for complaint. An appellate process is provided for by law to ensure compliance.

Equally important, the CMDA can also be approached to provide information on approval conditions of particular layouts which would enable a comparison with actual provision, fee particulars for various statutory certifications, status of applications for approvals and other public records. Applications for pattas from revenue authorities are also covered by the RTI Act.

Patta documents are widely seen as difficult to obtain, opening up the field to middlemen to offer their services. Many promoters offer to get pattas, demanding several thousand rupees from gullible buyers.

The RTI Act is useful in the domain of the Chennai Corporation as well. Zonal Officers are the Public Information Officers for most functions at the Zonal Level, while officers have been designated at the headquarters for various services rendered by the civic body. The details of these officers are found at the Corporation website together with the functions that they are responsible for.

The website can be accessed at RTI applications could cover building plan sanction, property tax matters, including incorrect assessments and change of records, status of name change applications, adjustment of wrongly computed arrears and so on; road works including patchwork repairs, which are neglected by many zones, can be pursued vigorously; residents can inspect whether appropriate engineering standards for road works have been followed as per tenders, with the details of contractor and expenditure incurred on annual basis.

Similar application of the RTI Act is possible for services that property owners need from other agencies, such as Metrowater and Tamil Nadu Electricity Board.
The Hindu : Property Plus Chennai : RTI Act empowers property owners

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