Continuing from my earlier post on how the Tea Board & APEDA were making an absolute mockery of the Right to Information Act, 2005, I’m glad to report that the Tea Board has overruled its earlier decision and agreed to disclose its expenses.
The Appellate Officer for implementation of the RTI Act, 2005 agreed with my argument that legal expenses of the Board could not be considered confidential and ordered the Central Public Information Officer (CPIO) to immediately disclose the information that I had requested in my application. This officer's reply can be accessed over here.
In his reply, (which can be accessed over here) the CPIO expressed ‘regret’ for his earlier reply, which he termed as ‘an error in judgement’. The CPIO then proceed to give me the legal expenses incurred by the Board on the ‘Darjeeling Tea’ G.I. but also other marks such as ‘Assam Orthodox’, ‘Nilgiri Orthodox’, ‘Dooars-Terai’ and ‘India-Tea’. The total legal expenses incurred by the Tea Board in securing these registrations and defending the marks, according to the reply was a sum of Rs. 4,33,56,008 only. Although the Tea Board claims that all of this money was spent on KnS Partners, I doubt whether the entire amount was towards the professional fees of KnS. It is likely that a significant portion of this expenditure was made to foreign law firms representing the Tea Board in jurisdictions like the E.U. etc. My initial RTI application had in fact asked for the break-up between the professional fees towards the Indian law firms and the foreign law firms. Given the Tea Board’s reply, I’m guessing that they do not have the break-up themselves.
I find it interesting and a little troubling that the Tea Board has incurred such a significant expenditure on legal services without so much as floating a tender, as stated in their earlier RTI reply, available over here. And let me clarify that it is not my case that KnS Partners is not competent or is over-charging in the present cases regarding ‘Darjeeling Tea’ etc. My only point is limited to the fact that public authorities like the Tea Board are not giving all law firms a level playing field in bidding for government contracts.
This is exactly where the Public Procurement Bill, 2012 kicks in to level the playing field for all law firms by forcing all public authorities to follow, as far as possible, a process of open tenders for the procurement of any goods or services. Of course, there is still the possibility of public authorities inserting stringent pre-qualification criteria which blocks out the smaller firms but even such criteria should bear reasonable nexus to the object of the tender.
Apart from authorities like the Tea Board and APEDA, other government bodies that IP law firms should look out for are organizations like CSIR, DRDO etc. I’m yet to receive a reply from APEDA to my appeal against the initial denial of information regarding the legal expenses on securing and defending T.M. & G.I. rights in ‘basmati’.