The Right to Information Act seems to be the most fatal law in the country. Though courts have not been convinced, the deaths of RTI activists across the country point at those who stood to lose from the truth. Add to the deaths the numerous threats received by activists and journalists. Legally, a murder is a murder, and it does not matter if the victim is an RTI crusader or anybody else. But in a darkening world, the gloom becomes almost palpable, when these rays of sunshine are blotted out.
The bureaucracy now says that many of these murders happened because the activist was not after the truth, but was using RTI to settle scores and blackmail officials. So, somewhere someone lost his head and went after them. “Maybe some people could be blackmailing officials, but if the officials are clean, then the question of blackmailing does not arise,” said Shivprakash Rai, president, Nagrik Adhikar Manch, Bihar. Rai has filed over 1,000 RTIs and said very few applications have been cleared at the local public information officer (PIO) level.
Most often, it is the family that fights a lone battle after the media glare has shifted. Shashidhar Mishra of Debosarai, Bihar, was shot down in 2010, when he was hot on the trail of scrap dealers and land-grabbers. His younger brother Mahidhar said that the family fears for its life, despite the case being in court. Mishra’s widow Anita and four children now fend for themselves, her poor parents are not in a position to help her.
Known as khabrilal (newsman), Mishra was killed during an uncommon power failure, which the family thinks was planned. He was about to enter his house when he was shot. Neighbour Ranjit Mishra, an accused in the murder, said: “I have not killed Mishra. I was at my shop. Mahidhar also has not named anyone. Mishra was probably killed because he caught up with dabang [strong] people.”
Ram Vilas Singh, 55, of Lakhisarai, Bihar, was killed in broad daylight on December 8, 2011. The farmer had filed an RTI query about agriculture schemes in his area. But Bihar’s Chief Information Commissioner Ashok Kumar Choudhary categorically told THE WEEK that there was no ‘RTI killing’ in the state. Singh’s son Abhishek said his father, who was freshly elected to the panchayat, had complained to government officials about threats from the local police.
In Talegaon, Maharashtra, Satish Shetty, 39, was killed by a blow on his head about a year ago. He had sought information under RTI about some land deals that had reportedly gone wrong. His friend Arun Mane followed up the cases he was digging up, and was threatened a few times by a gun-wielding youth. Later, he was attacked in his shop. Hit on the head, he lost consciousness and was hospitalised.
After being discharged, a shaken Mane said he was mentally unstable and the attack had never happened. And the can of worms opened by Shetty was closed again.
In a petition, Shetty’s brother Sandeep said that Ideal Road Builders, an infrastructure development company, was the prime suspect. Shetty had gone to the police for protection while working on their case. The CBI probe into Shetty’s murder has not brought anything to light, and the family has lost hope.
Pune-based RTI activist Vivek Vellankar said the murders indicated a shift in the RTI machinery: “Now people are using the RTI more for social issues and not just for personal purposes. The entire bureaucracy and political force have become intolerant of that.” Vellankar is setting up safeguards against this kind of violence. He calls it guerrilla warfare. He asks applicants to publicise all information, and to have multiple applicants for one query. “If 20 people across India file the same RTI application, there is no way one person can be pulled out and attacked,” he said.
In the Mumbai suburb of Virar, Premkant Jha, 45, was shot dead a month ago, and the family is convinced that it is ‘RTI killing’. “My father had filed many RTIs against illegal buildings in Vasai and Virar,” said his eldest daughter Reema. “There are nearly 4.25 lakh illegal buildings.” She said many buildings were brought down following his applications. A father of three, Jha was a driver at a leading company, before he turned real estate agent and RTI activist.
In Uttar Pradesh, Akhilesh Saxena, 56, was allegedly hit by a police jeep because he accompanied RTI applicant Salim Baig to the office of the state information commissioner. Saxena ended up with a fractured left hand and three broken ribs, but continues to file RTIs. His last count was over 3,000 applications.
Another fighter from UP, Shailendra Singh, 45, was quite surprised to get a glimpse of the government from the other side of the desk. Once a deputy superintendent of police in the Special Task Force, he resigned when he was asked to drop all cases against legislator Mukhtar Ansari. This happened during Mulayam Singh Yadav’s last tenure as chief minister. Subsequently, Singh joined the Congress and heads its RTI Task Force in UP. “One day I had gone to state information commissioner’s office,” he said. “I was accused of vandalising the office, was arrested and got bail after a week. The case is in the court. Misusing money and power has become a habit.
Information Commissioner at the Centre, Shailesh Gandhi is more worried about the fact that most governments are not designed to deliver. “The bigger worry is inefficiency,” he said. “Things do not change. There is no attempt to change. RTI challenges powerful forces. They were challenged even before RTI. People were killed in the past. But with RTI it is easy to challenge.” At the Central Information Commission, the team has passed a resolution moved by Gandhi to put up all the pending RTI applications on the website if an applicant is killed or attacked.
The Mahiti Adhikar Gujarat Pahel in Ahmedabad gets about 70 calls a day from people wanting to use RTI, said its secretary Pankti Jog. MAGP also runs a whistle-blower helpline. “On an average, we receive three to four calls a month,” she said. “The calls are recorded with the permission of the caller. The state information commission is informed, so are the police. FIR is lodged and the person is given protection. This is one way of ensuring that the person gets protection and information.”
In Madhya Pradesh, environmental activist Ajay Dubey said the government had hardly done anything to create awareness on RTI. “The Act has been weakened when it comes to its implementation,” he said. “In several cases, the officers obtain a stay from the High Court when they are penalised for not giving information on time.”
It also happens that the state governments are not keen on making appointments in the state information commissions. In MP, for instance, there is only one information commissioner in addition to outgoing chief information commissioner P.P. Tiwari. He told THE WEEK that despite writing to the state government several times, appointments were not made. As many as 3,700 applications have been pending before the state information commission since 2009. He says one information commissioner is needed for every 500 appeals. In Gujarat, there are only two information commissioners in addition to the chief information commissioner, this despite a number of NGOs making representations to increase the strength.
Frustration of not getting information can also cost lives. Janardhan Ghadvi of Rapar, Gujarat, immolated himself after his RTI queries went unanswered. The 45-year-old bachelor had told a local channel about his plan. The files he demanded are still missing.
In Bangalore, B.R.V. Prasanna, 38, faced police harassment after he tried to prove that his neighbour had illegally put his residential building to commercial use. The software consultant said, “My ailing father was killed by the constant harassment and yet nothing has changed for better. Local police land at our house not to protect but only to ask us to stop using RTI. Can it be worse for a layman?”
Former Lokayukta N. Santosh Hegde said, “I don’t think Karnataka is safe for RTI unless the whistle-blowers are offered some protection. The informant seeking information through RTI must be kept secret and in case of such threats, the police must help those in genuine trouble. Almost all who face safety problems with RTI are those seeking specific information on people in power or corruption.”
In Andhra Pradesh, the Governor returned the file recommending information commissioners, saying four out of eight candidates had political affiliations. For 14 months, AP had only the chief information commissioner to process queries.
The Andhra Pradesh Information Commission had ordered an inquiry into the death of 30-year-old Sola Ranga Rao of Sitarampuram village in Krishna district. This activist had sought to know what had happened to funds meant for a pipeline in his village. The superintendent of police of Krishna district termed Rao’s death as accidental. He also absolved the public information officer of any involvement inthecase.
The trend is consistent from Kashmir to the south. A dentist and activist Muzaffar Bhat of Srinagar has been attacked many times, but has been lucky. He has been filing RTI applications on financial irregularities in various state government departments. In the national capital, florist S.K. Tiwari, 38, who has a shop on Baba Khadak Singh Marg, was kidnapped in the wee hours of March 1 and was dropped off in Muzaffarnagar two days later. One of his RTI applications was instrumental in unearthing a 053 crore scam of 2,853 ghost employees in the Municipal Corporation of Delhi.
“If my family members had their way, they would never let me step out of home,” he said. “But if I sit silent, the wrong-doers will get strength. It is better to die for the country, instead of dying a dog’s death.
with Lalita Iyer, Sharmista Chaudhury, Aarthi Raghunathan and Tariq Bhat