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Information is explosive at Singareni Collieries May 3, 2012

Posted by nishankmotwani in : Guest authors, India , trackback

Patrik Oskarsson

I approached the public sector Singareni Collieries coal mining company in August 2011 at their head office in Kothagudem of Khammam District in Andhra Pradesh, as part of an ActionAid-sponsored study looking at the local livelihood impact of coal mining. The experiences of trying to interact with the company illustrate how, despite a Right To Information Act being in place for more than five years, a change in the organizational culture towards transparency is yet to set in.

Day 1

On the phone my contact made it seem as if it would be easy to just drop into the office without an appointment. Of course this was far from the truth. After some amount of searching we get to the very quiet project and planning building. Once we find somebody to talk to we are immediately directed to the head, the General Manager (GM). But the GM is not authorized to share information with an outside researcher. We are directed to his boss, the Director P&P (Project and Planning), who sits in the main office in the next building down the road.

It turns out that the Director is out, and will not be in until Monday. We are instead told to meet the second person in command, the Head of Corporate Planning. Though the Head invites us with great courtesy into his office we can only get some very general statements from him about the need for more coal to generate electricity and the inevitable impact of mining on local livelihoods. This is all that he is willing to say without the permission of the absent Director. Even very elementary questions about Singareni are not answered and we will have to come back on Monday.

Day 2

When we return on Monday the Director P&P is very busy according to one of his many minders. But once I give my visiting card we only have to wait for some 10 minutes before being asked to come in.

The Director quickly decides that this is a job which requires the approval of the Director of Human Resource Development (HRD), who is unfortunately on leave. It seems possible that this is the main reason why he is selected as the person to talk to. Or could it be that the HRD Department also works on what other companies call public relations? Asking the Director P&P what the point is of being sent from one person to the next and if there is an end to all these referrals does not result in any answers.

With no other options we decide to look for the HRD Director. We quickly confirm that he is indeed on leave with no specific date of return. We are passed on yet again to the second in line, the “Deputy Director HRD (mining)”. This is a quiet and cautious person in a very small office thereby potentially indicating less importance.

The Deputy Director is again friendly but unsure what to do with us. He doesn’t seem able to think of anyone else he can pass us on to at this, our sixth stage of referral. Is this since we have come to the office of the Appellate Authority under the Right to Information Act? The HRD is normally involved in staff training making it seem less logical to expect this to be either the point of approval or dissemination of information. Whatever the case may be the Deputy Director seems unable to say no to a foreign researcher from a big city university. He first starts making calls on the internal phone which indicates that he is not calling his boss, the GM, who is on leave. After a while he asks me if it we can come back after lunch once he has been able to secure approval from some nameless authority. After lunch apparently means at three which is too late since I am leaving the same evening.

The next question is what is it exactly that I want? I try to mention the least harmful pieces of information I can think of which still make some sense to ask for. I say it would be interesting to see some production information and something about the number of people employed. At this point a desperate search for ‘safe’ information already available on the Singareni website starts. There are an impressive 7,000 documents available for download according to a Google search, and even more information in various databases on the website. The Deputy Director does not appear to be very familiar with the website but luckily the personal secretary to the absent Director is more IT savvy. After some searches data relevant to my study area is pulled from the website.

But other details are more difficult to provide. I write down on a piece of paper that I am interested in reports related to social and environmental concerns. This is when the Deputy Director finally comes up with a good way of getting me out of his office. He simply says that he can find me these reports as soon as the concerned department heads are free from their ongoing meeting(s). He says he can mail them to me in Bangalore. It is difficult for me to say anything other than that I trust he will send the reports. Of course discussing things like the content or even the number of pages that any one report is not possible for the Deputy Director when no approval exists for sharing any information.

All other Directors appear to be either busy in meetings or not available. But there is never a clear denial since also this could also potentially be to overstep authority. There is no right to approve information dissemination but also no right to deny it. All that remains to ask for are contact details in case I do not receive the promised reports. I get one departmental email address, then I get the office landline numbers. The question of a direct mobile number either to him or to his boss does not result in success. Even a personal email address or a mobile phone number is apparently sensitive to hand out at Singareni.

On our way out we pass piles of documents in the hallways of the run-down office, stacked in cardboard boxes which say “Explosives” in large red letters. Potentially these are boxes earlier used to transport dynamite to the mines. It is hard to see a more fitting way of describing how Singareni employees handle information.

Note: More than two months after the visit the promised documents from Singareni had yet to appear in Bangalore.

Patrik Oskarsson is Assistant Professor at Azim Premji University

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