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Updated: September 19, 2010 23:13 IST

Dangerous nexus to bully RTI activists

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The Hindu

Next month, the Right to Information (RTI) Act, 2005, one of the most powerful laws enacted in independent India, completes half a decade in the cause of transparent and accountable administration. It enables, on demand, access to information the State and Central governments have in their possession. It empowers Indian citizens to ask for and get specific information, subject to certain norms, from a Public Authority, “thus making its functionaries more accountable and responsible.” Democracy, proclaims the Act, “requires an informed citizenry and transparency of information which are vital to its functioning and also to contain corruption and to hold the governments and their instrumentalities accountable to the governed.”

For the thousands of social and political activists across the country committed to clean and corruption-free governance, the Act came as a powerful tool. They could drag to the courts anti-social elements such as smugglers, miners, land grabbers and, more particularly, corrupt government officials, through public interest litigation petitions and bring them under judicial scrutiny on the strength of the information they get under the RTI Act. Corruption is a gigantic problem in India. About 25,000 cases filed under the Prevention of Corruption Act were pending in the trial courts across India in 2008. A study has found that it would take three to four years and 200 special courts to clear this backlog. Besides social activists, journalists have been increasingly using the RTI route to dig out relevant documents in pursuit of investigative stories.

But the real potential of the Act is yet to be realised. Chief Information Commissioner Wajahat Habibullah pointed out at a recent convention that a major challenge before the transparency regime was monitoring the implementation of Section 4 of the RTI Act, which has made proactive disclosure of information by various government departments mandatory.

Another point highlighted by the CIC with deep concern was “the emerging threat of murder” of those who tried to take on persons with vested interests in different States. He wanted “the RTI brotherhood” to devise a defence mechanism to deal with this menace. The press has reported that at least eight RTI activists were murdered and a ninth found dead in the last eight months. Union Law Minister Veerappa Moily, while inaugurating the convention, announced that a law to protect RTI activists would be brought in soon. He also said that under a draft Bill cleared by the Cabinet, the onus of protecting the identity of such whistleblowers would be on the CIC.

Whistleblowers killed

The news media, particularly NDTV and CNN-IBN, played a significant role in bringing to light the brutal murders of the RTI activists when they exposed or sought to expose the misdeeds of several wealthy and highly connected persons on the strength of the documentary evidence they could get, thanks to the RTI Act. The latest victim was Ramdas Ghadegavkar, a Shiv Sena leader based in the district town of Nanded in Maharashtra. He was found dead on August 27 under mysterious circumstances. An RTI activist, Ramdas made a number of successful interventions in complaints of corruption in the functioning of the Public Distribution System and in the distribution of fuel. He was also active in exposing the powerful sand mafia; his complaint led to initiation of action by the district administration against the mafia.

A month earlier, on the evening of July 20, 2010, another RTI activist and environmentalist, Amit Jethwa (33), was shot dead by some unidentified men on a motorcycle outside the High Court of Gujarat. His crusade against illegal mining in the Gir forest is suspected to be the reason of the murder. A few weeks prior to this incident, the High Court of Gujarat, on a petition from Jethwa, had cancelled the promotion of J.K. Vyas as Director (Environment) on the grounds that it was unconstitutional. The first arrest in the case was made only seven weeks after the murder. The arrested person, Pratap alias Shiva Solanki, is related to an Opposition Member of Parliament. Social activist Aruna Roy, a key campaigner for the Right to Information Act, told NDTV that whistleblowers faced the biggest threat from the nexus between corrupt officials and the mafia.

Vishram Laxman Dodya (50), a Surat-based shopkeeper, was killed on February 11 for refusing to withdraw his RTI application for information on illegal electricity connections in Surat. Dodya was called to the police station, where officials unsuccessfully tried to persuade him to withdraw the application. He was shot dead when he was returning home.

In another incident early this year, Satish Shetty (38), a Pune-based activist, was killed because he refused to give up exposing land scams by invoking the RTI Act. He had been unmindful of the repeated threats to him and his family. He was murdered on January 13, when he was out on his morning walk. Satish Shetty rose to prominence when he exposed corruption in land deals a decade ago when the work on Mumbai-Pune expressway was in progress.

Besides these killings, there have been a series of attacks on RTI activists seeking information from the government. These attacks only point to the dangerous nexus built between the corrupt officials and the police on the one hand, and politicians and the mafia on the other, to stifle the voices of the voiceless. The Central and State governments cannot be absolved of their responsibility to protect the RTI activists. Significant sections of the news media, TV channels in particular, have done a good job of spotlighting the cases and the issues. This effort needs to be scaled up and sustained.

I have an idea: please read this and give me your comments:

Current Issues: Identity of RTI activists and confinement of information only to them.

We can have website which allows RTI activits to submit their request for information. There information and address will remain encrypted in the database. Their request will be printed and properly sent to the desired government office for response and the response address will be same as the sent address. Once the reply is received, the document is scanned and uploaded on the website and also sent a email to the RTI activist. If the RTI activist chose to get a hard copy, the reply can be printed and sent to him by speed post. This way identity of the RTI activist is hidden and the information received by him can be viewed by other people too (if RTI activist wants to share).

This kind of facility should be provided by all media groups through out the country. This way they can get lot of news for their 24 hrs channels and help the country in removing corruption.

from:  Abhay
Posted on: Sep 28, 2010 at 02:59 IST

Half the people in this country do not know their rights. Law in this country is woven with such ambiguous words that it is difficult to interpret the same - judges themselves have proven this with different interpretations - informations are not available as there is no transperancy - again, there is nothing written available you can call "cut and dry" and point out erring parties. I feel that the government persons are given special training to avoid answering relevent questions and dillydallying. If at all we insist on information, there is always the threat that informations reach the concerned party before it does and then there is harassment to make us withdraw our request. There need not be an act call right to information act if the law makers and law keepers ensure that citizens are law abiding.

from:  A.K. Subramanian
Posted on: Sep 26, 2010 at 12:54 IST

After having fought for information for about ten months, I have realised that it is a very week act and is basically good for nothing other than putting the applicant into severe threat from the authorities from whom the information is sought. Applicants keep on requesting for information but no one listens, ten months and still no hope no penalty on those who are contravening the act and its provisions.
I have talked to Principal secretary and the minister of a department both of them agrees that the information is given but says rush to high court if they still do not provide the information. MY husband who was demoted bears the brunt and threats of ruined career.

God save the information seekers!

piyusha tiwari

from:  Piyusha Tiwari
Posted on: Sep 24, 2010 at 16:52 IST

Violence against RTI seekers is another nail to the coffin of democracy in our incorrigibly corrupt country - God save us.

from:  R. Vasudevan
Posted on: Sep 24, 2010 at 14:29 IST

The media have done well in exposing the murders of RTI activists.
But their martyrdom must not be wasted.It is time now to build a nexus against nexus of corrupt officials and politicians.We can't wait till the legislation be formed to protect whistleblowers.
Media can play a major role in forming a strong umbrella organistion(of national level) of RTI activists and whistleblowers.This type of large org can take responsibility to protect its members nationwide through the help of security agency and media.

from:  Anil vinyek
Posted on: Sep 24, 2010 at 13:39 IST

RTI Act will be tested when someone files an RTI for disclosing details of money spent on CWG. I would not be suprised to see the details showing toilet paper worth Rs. 9000.
But RTI Act has managed to expose many corruption cases but it has also endangered the life of RTI Activists.

from:  Anagh
Posted on: Sep 24, 2010 at 13:26 IST

We need some one like chavez...seriously all these acts and rules means nothing when the person who should protect the people does it. The government is the enemy in most cases. People in position which is the government abuses normal people. The rules mean nothing. We need change and education.

from:  Sathish
Posted on: Sep 23, 2010 at 22:02 IST

Are we so foolish and devoid of wisdom that it takes us 5 years and a number of dead bodies of RTI activists to even begin thinking about The Whistleblowers Act?
Honestly, the least we could do to mark the fifth year of this landmark act is to bring in the mechanism, ASAP, for protection of people who stand against the devil putting their life in danger.

from:  Ujjwal
Posted on: Sep 23, 2010 at 12:25 IST

Many good persons had made sacrifices for bringing corrupt to be tried in the courts and also before the public for their misdeeds,but at the cost of their life. But to safeguard their life the protection from some independent body is required, otherwise we cannot hope to have a transparent government.

from:  P.S.Thakur
Posted on: Sep 20, 2010 at 19:01 IST

The article has once again highlighted the plight of RTI activists in the country. Though making RTI coming into the purview of common man,its potential is still untapped. It is that non-violent measure that can curb any kind of prevailing menace in the society. But until and unless a common man feels secure that seeking information via RTI will not be threat to his life, he will not use it and continue to succumb to corrupt practices.It is a shame after reading the case of Late Mr. Vishram Laxman Dodya who was killed while returning back from police station.Law giving protection to RTI activists is strictly required.

from:  Swatee Singhal
Posted on: Sep 20, 2010 at 15:36 IST

Govt. should bring a law to protect whistleblowers who take risk of their life and reveals the corruption and crimes behind the files.
They are doing a very good deed for our country and in my opinion they are today's some of true patriots.
Protecting whistleblowes will bring fear in corrupt officials and politicians who don't do their duty.

from:  Ashok Rajpurohit
Posted on: Sep 20, 2010 at 15:24 IST

5 years come to an end for implementing RTI act. But situation of corruption is of now as before 5 years. Where there is corruption they skillfuly manage bills & account and where it is not possible they try to manage upcoming whistleblowers. If whistleblowers firm on his stand they try to lock his voice by finishing him. What's irony.

from:  Gajanan
Posted on: Sep 20, 2010 at 10:37 IST
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