When the government passed the Right to Information Act (RTI) in 2005, it may well have added a statutory warning: exercising this right may be extremely injurious to health.
Shashidhar Mishra of Begusarai, who was murdered by unknown assailants last Sunday, is the second RTI activist to be killed in a month for perhaps knowing too much.
Attacks on RTI activists have emerged as a disturbing trend of late, especially in light of the murder of noted Pune RTI activist Satish Shetty, who was responsible for unearthing many land scams in Maharashtra.
Mr. Mishra, a local RTI activist who worked tirelessly to expose corruption at the panchayat and block levels, was shot dead by unidentified men on motorcycles near his residence in Phulwaria village on the night of February 14.
Village sources revealed that Mr. Mishra, who had acquired the sobriquet of ‘Khabri Lal,’ had been proactively using the RTI as a tool for exposing scams. “He incurred the wrath of some local body representatives in the process,” a villager disclosed.
Begusarai Superintendent of Police Vinay Kumar said that different angles to Mr. Mishra’s killing, including past enmity with certain people, were being investigated.
“An FIR has been lodged against three people, though we have not made any vital breakthrough in the case as of now,” Mr. Kumar said.
Mr. Mishra’s death has drawn fire from activists of the National Campaign for the People’s Right to Information (NCPRI) and the Bihar RTI Manch, who have challenged the government’s commitment on the protection of whistleblowers.
The RTI Act has been sailing in rough seas for some time now in Bihar, with the State government’s decision to make certain changes in the legislation citing “procedural inconveniences” drawing sharp criticism from activists and NGOs.
“Cases pertaining to harassment of applicants were being closed summarily without imposing penalty to the guilty officers,” said Parveen Amanullah, convener of the RTI Manch.
As per the Act, any officer refusing to part with information is penalised Rs.250 per day from his salary.
“The government has only dealt with 22 such cases so far, when there are several officers who have gotten away scot free,” Ms. Amanullah added.
In November, activists strongly objected to the Bihar cabinet’s decision which made it mandatory for Below the Poverty Line (BPL) applicants to pay money at the rate of Rs.2 per page for information exceeding 10 pages.
“Information for BPL applicants is supposed to be completely free as stipulated by section 7 (5) of the Act. The move is contrary to the spirit of the Act,” Ms. Amanullah said.
According to noted activist and Magsaysay Award winner Sandeep Pandey, the Bihar government’s move only serves to obscure the truth.
“More importantly, the government has not substantiated with any data as to how questions asked by these BPL cardholders was causing them inconvenience. It is definitely anti-poor,” Mr. Pandey added.
He said that while changes in the RTI Act have been enacted in other States like Uttar Pradesh, which had recently taken the civil aviation department off its disclosure list, the “modified legislation had not directly affected the common people in a big way.”