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.
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.