There are too many skeletons in the cupboard of the Army’s welfare institutions — AWWA & AWHO.
Guneet Chaudhary’s efforts to uncover the shenangians of the Army Wives Welfare Association by using the RTI Act has opened a proverbial can of worms. The former army Major brings out the inconsistencies in Army’s stand in this comment highlighting the CIC order on his appeal.
On the last hearing on 15 Jan 2008, AWWA presented in writing its response to the various queries made by the Information Commission during the earlier hearing. However, on AWWA’s Counsel refusal to furnish a copy to the appellant, the CIC ordered AWWA to give the copy of the reply to the Appellant. On perusal of the balance sheets furnished by AWWA ,the Appellant pointed out that it did not reflect the entire sources of income of the AWWA and specifically referred to the 2008 report of the Canteen Stores Department (CSD) in which CSD had claimed to have contributed to the AWWA and some others a total of Rupees 9500 million over the past sixty years. The said evidence was produced by the Appellant. Taking a serious note of the evidence adduced by the Appellant, the CIC ordered the Canteen Stores Department representative to be present on the next date of hearing and apprise the CIC of the contribution made to AWWA on year wise basis. Further CIC directed AWWA to explain on or before the next date of hearing the annual hiring cost of Government premises in which its offices and facilities are housed.
Surprisingly, though the Army authorities till date claim AWWA to be an independent entity, the AWWA’s balance sheets were submitted by Army .The records further revealed that the Audit of AWWA was conducted at the behest of Army authorities and the audit reports were also submitted to Army’s Adjutant General’s Branch. It clearly shows that Army has direct control over the funds of the AWWA. The Appellant had raised many issues regarding the balance sheets submitted and the same will come up for discussion on the next hearing. It may be recalled that Comptroller and Auditor General of India in one of its reports had also raised questions regarding the functioning of AWWA.
The copies of posting orders of serving Army officers on AWWA’s assignments furnished by Army further substantiated Appellants claim that AWWA is substantially using the human resources/sources of the Indian Army. During the earlier hearings, Army authorities have declined having posted any serving Army officer/personnel’s on AWWA duties. The posting orders submitted by the Army authorities clearly shows that posting orders are being issued by the Army’s MS branch, and it clearly reveals that posting of Staff officers is directly controlled by the Indian Army. It clearly shows the misuse of Army machinery by AWWA though the Army authorities speak otherwise. It has been contended by Army that all men associated with AWWA are rendering voluntary services after the Office hours and are contributing voluntarily from their own monies.
Meanwhile, a friend sent me an email that highlights the inconsistencies with the Army Welfare Housing Organisation. The originator of the email, it seems, is none other than the former Major General VK Singh who was targeted by the government for bringing out the misdeeds in the R&AW.
After having spent 37 years, I am not very comfortable writing this. As a rule, we don’t criticize our own profession, or anything connected with it. That is the credo of the soldier, which sets him apart from others. But now that the Army has disowned the AWHO – yes disowned is the right word – I think it is time to speak out.
The AWHO was created in 1978, with the avowed aim of providing houses to Army personnel at low cost. The scheme, when it began, was modeled on a scheme that existed in the Pakistan Army, wherein a fixed sum of money was deducted from the salary of a soldier, so that he could be given a house when he retired. The AWHO was formed with a similar scheme in mind, called the long term scheme. I still remember the thrill we felt when the scheme was announced by the COAS on Army day. I was posted in HAA and heard the news on my transistor. Most officers and men joined the scheme and amounts varying form Rs 50 to Rs 200 began to be deducted from their salaries. To cater to those who had between 5-10 years service left, there was also a short term scheme, where the contributions were higher. This continued for a few years. Then, to help those who had just one or two years service left, the spot scheme was started. Later, the long and short term schemes were scrapped, and only the spot scheme survived. The AWHO became like the DDA, or any of the State Housing Boards. (I have often wondered why they still have the ‘W’, since there is no welfare now. The Air Force and Naval Housing Boards don’t profess to be welfare organisations, through they are more transparent).
According to its charter, as given on its web site (www.awhosena.org), the AWHO functions on ‘No Profit No Loss’ basis. However, this is not entirely true. Sadly, the AWHO has become a den of corruption and is fleecing soldiers – harsh words, but true – who are naïve and have little time to go into details. Those who try run into a wall.
The AWHO and Right to Information Act
· Attempts by members to get any information are stone walled by the AWHO which contends that it is not covered by the RTI Act since it is a ‘private society’, registered under the Societies Registration Act XXI of 1860. (This is laughable. The AWHO is located in Army accommodation in Kashmir House, alongside the E-in-C’s Branch of Army HQ; it has many serving personnel posted or attached to it; it is run by an executive committee of which the Adjutant General is the ex –officio chairman).
· In a hearing held on 10/10/08 on an appeal filed by Maj Gen VK Singh, the CIC accepted the plea of the AWHO that it is a private society registered with the Registrar of Societies Delhi. In support of their arguments, AWHO submitted a statement of the MoS, Defence, Shri Arun Singh before the Lok Sabha. The Minister had stated:- “As far as the first part of the question is concerned, no, it is not part of the Government. It is a society registered under the Societies Act. Regarding the second part of the question, the full time Chairman and all the members of the board of management are ex-offcio. There is no individual as such as Chairman. The Chairmanship rotates as postings are changed. As far as meeting of the general body is concerned, in this particular society, as registered under the Societies Act, there is no such thing as the general body. It is the board of management that runs the society. There the members meet regularly, once year minimum. And as far as complaints are concerned, we are not a in a position to intervene in their functioning directly. We do, however, if there are any complaints, pass on the same to the society.”
· Though the CIC upheld the plea of the AWHO that is not a public authority, in his order he added:- “That the Adjutant General’s Branch of the Indian Army can access the information pertaining to AWHO was admitted by the CPIO in answer to a direct question in the hearing. The appellant may also seek information concerning the AWHO through the Registrar of Societies by filing a fresh application under the RTI Act provided such information is legally accessible to the Registrar under the Societies Registration Act cited above, concerning AWHO. The appellant has the right u/s 2(j) to seek any information available with Army headquarters and the concerned CPIO will be obliged to provide all available information in their custody.”
· Maj Gen VK Singh applied to the Registrar of Societies seeking information under the RTI Act on 31/10/08. The reply is very interesting. The AWHO was registered under the Societies Registration Act vide Registration No. S-9142 on 23/3/1978. The main file of the society is missing since long hence the name of the applicant is not available in the record. This is not all. The AWHO is not filing the list of governing body members – this is mandatory – no such list is available in the record after 1998. There is no record of the AGM being held, elections of office bearers and accounts.
· An application addressed to the MOD asking for information regarding was facilities such as accommodation, transport, manpower provided to AWHO was transferred by the MOD to Army HQ, which in turn sent it to the AWHO. As expected, AWHO has refused to provide the information, quoting the decision of the CIC that it is not a public authority and does not come under the provision of the RTI Act 2005.
· Recently, in another RTI case, the Army had contended that it has nothing to do with the Army Wives Welfare Association (AWWA). It now says the same thing about the AWHO. Will it also wash its hands of the Army Welfare Education Society (AWES) and the Ex-Servicemen Central Heath Scheme (ECHS)?
Some Interesting Facts
· The AWHO recovers the cost of land as well as construction in advance. Hence 100% of the cost of the houses is recovered several years before the house is handed over. So, in effect, the AWHO does not spend any money of its own, and owns neither the land nor the houses its builds. Its status is that of a builder, who constructs the houses on behalf of the members, using their funds. Yet, it insists that a conveyance deed is executed after the house is handed over. This results in payment of double stamp duty by the members for the land; once when AWHO buys the land from the original land owner (using their funds) and again when AWHO transfers the houses to them.
· Members of several housing societies in NOIDA, including AWHO and Air Force and Naval Housing Board, (AFNHB) filed a case against the Ghaziabad Development Authority (GDA) in the Allahabad High Court. In a judgment dated 14/10/2004, Justices Markandey Katju and Sunil Ambwani ruled that the members, ‘being owners of the flats/apartments, could not be compelled to enter into the sale of the flat which is already owned by them and to enter into any fresh terms and conditions of allotment of such flats/apartments which are not agreeable to them.’ Since this involved the refund of several hundred crores recovered by them as stamp duties, the GDA has appealed in the Supreme Court. The case has still to be decided. Registration of conveyance deeds in NOIDA has been stopped, but AWHO continues to follow this procedure in other stations.
· In the conveyance deed, the AWHO mentions that the dwelling unit is ‘free hold and free from all encumbrances, claims, encroachment, demands, dues, liens, mortgage, decrees, litigations, prior sales, agreement to sell etc’. However, it stipulates that the new owners can neither sell the flat, nor give it on rent without its permission. This is not only contrary to the Transfer of Properties Act but also the ruling of the High Court quoted above.
· The AWHO transfers only the dwelling unit and not the proportional share of the land, which the member has already paid for. This is contrary to the Transfer of Properties Act as well as the Apartment Owners Act. The latter stipulates that within 90 days of completion of the project, the builder should file a declaration with the State Urban Development Authority, giving details of the number, size, value and proportionate share of land and common facilities of each apartment owner. Apartment owners are required to execute a deed of apartment, on which no stamp duties are required to be paid.
· The AWHO has offered to transfer the title of the land to the RWAs provided they pay the stamp duty. This will mean that the members will pay stamp duty thrice, for land which had been purchased by them in the first instance. As a result, very few RWAs have agreed to do this, and the title of the land continues to be with the AWHO.
· If a member wishes to sell the flat, he has to apply to the AWHO for an NOC. The AWHO charges Rs 10,000/- from the Seller as well as the Buyer. To justify the recovery, the buyer, even if he is civilian, is made a member of the AWHO. The new buyer has to give an undertaking that he will not sell or rent out the flat without permission of the AWHO. In effect, it ensures that the AWHO makes Rs. 20,000 every time the flat is sold, in perpetuity. There is no record of the amount recovered by AWHO so far on account of such sales, but estimates range between 100 to 200 crores.
The AWHO and the Consumer Protection Act
· The AWHO indulges in several unfair practices, even falsifying records. In an attempt to prove that its houses are cheaper than those available in the market, it only mentions the covered area of the flats, without giving details of the carpet area, wall area or common areas. For example, the covered area of the three bedroom flats in Devinder Vihar, Sector 56, Gurgaon is stated to be 1410 sq. ft. in the possession certificate as well as the conveyance deed. In response to an RTI application, the Haryana Urban Development Authority (HUDA) has confirmed that the covered area is just 1269.12 sq. ft. There is thus a shortfall of 144 sq. ft. or more than 10%.
· The main reason for the shortfall is that the AWHO counts 100% of the area of balconies while computing the covered area. The industry norm, followed by MES, AFNHB and private builders is 50%. This is also the figure given in E-in-C’s Technical Instruction No 13 of 1970.
· Maj Gen VK Singh (Retd) had filed a case in 2003 in the Delhi State Consumer Commission against the AWHO for the shortfall in the covered area. In a judgment delivered on 20/01/2009 the Commission has ordered the AWHO to refund Rs 25,000 for the shortfall, in addition to a penalty of Rs 50,000. If anyone wants a copy of the complaint, he can send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. You can get a copy of the order from the website of the Commission delhistatecommission.nic.in. The case No is 12/03
In a nutshell, the AWHO is a law unto itself, accountable to nobody. The Army has already washed its hands of the AWHO – it should not have, but it has – and the Registrar of Societies has confessed that he has no control or information about its activities. The common soldiers – officers, JCOs and OR – feel that it is an Army set up, which will look after their interests. Is this not a case of breach of trust? I felt the same when the military hospitals stopped treating ex-servicemen, and palmed them off to the ECHS. I always believed that the bonds one forms in the Army are for life and continue even after one stops wearing the Olive Greens. One by one, these bonds appear to be breaking, or cut away. After the AWWA and the AWHO, will the AWES and ECHS follow suit? And the RSIs and DSOIs?
The Right to Information has brought these dark secrets of the non-operational aspects of the army into the open. Judging by these incidents, things can’t be much different in other operational aspects. While the ruse of National Security provides a perfect cover-up for the deficiencies in operational aspects, an ignorant political class, an inept bureaucratic setup, an inefficient media and a feudal military brass only reinforce the Holy Cow image of the armed forces. Is there a reasonable way out?