With attacks on the rise, RTI activists demand protection in pursuit of truth
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New Delhi: Since the introduction of the Right to Information (RTI) Act in 2005, 56 people (51 murders and five suicides) have paid with their lives for seeking the truth.
311 instances of attack or harassment of citizens, who sought information under the RTI Act have been recorded.
In March, RTI activist Vinayak Baliga was hacked to death in Mangaluru by two contract killers. It is believed that Baliga was killed for his attempts to expose alleged misappropriation of funds by Mangaluru’s Venkataramana temple authorities.
Bhupendra Vira was shot dead in October for filing RTI applications seeking information about alleged illegal construction by a former corporator in the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC).
Ratnasinh Chaudhry, a 30-year-old farmer in Garamdi village in Gujarat, was beaten to death last October for filing an RTI application seeking information about beneficiaries of relief packages following the 2015 floods.
The Economic Times, in a story dated 27 October, reported that a resident of a neighbouring village said that the RTI query had revealed that the actual victims got Rs2,500 while “unaffected people received cash doles between Rs55,000 and Rs90,000”.
From embezzlement of flood relief to illegal construction, people are being killed in this country for seeking information that is theirs by right. “People are being attacked for fund allocation for schemes like MNREGA, flood relief, etc. Scores of RTI users have lost their lives for seeking information of public interest. Hundreds have been attacked, assaulted, harassed and threatened,” said Venkatesh Nayak, programme coordinator, Access to Information Programme, Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI).
CHRI has built up a database on these attacks through sources ranging from media reports and data uploaded by the National Campaign for Right to Information. The data is for the period between 12 October 2005 and 17 October 2016.
Maharashtra tops the list of deaths of RTI activists with 10 alleged murders and at least two suicides. Gujarat comes second with eight alleged murders and one suicide.
“How many of these attacks lead to criminal cases? The mandate of RTI is against corruption, to ensure better governance. But this mandate is incomplete if RTI activists are not protected,” said Ajay Dubey, an RTI activist from Madhya Pradesh. He has a long history of activism in the areas of mining, forest conservation, tiger preservation, among others.
In the 11 years since its inception, there have been 17.5 million RTI applications filed. Among the scams of note brought to light using RTI was the Adarsh affair which eventually led to the resignation of a chief minister.
One of the provisions of the RTI Act, listed under section 4 (2), is the voluntary disclosure of information by public authorities so that citizens don’t have to seek information. According to an article published on the Newslaundry website in 2015, “Other important duties of public authority under Section 4 include cataloguing, indexing and computerization of records, publishing certain basic information pertaining to each organization within a specified time frame…” Needless to say the section hasn’t ever lived up to its potential.
According to RTI activist and Satark Nagrik Sangathan founder Anjali Bhardwaj, most of the information which RTI users have sought in the past should have actually been made available under section 4. “From panchayat kharcha (expenses) to MNREGA fund allocation, all of these should have been made available proactively but the government did not do so. So people had to file RTI applications and on the basis of that information they went on to file police complaints which is what leads to their being targeted by vested interests,” she added.
RTI in its present avatar has no provision for the safety of its users. There are suggestions to bring users under the Whistleblower Protection Act but unfortunately, the act recognizes a citizen as a whistleblower only if he or she makes a complaint to the Central Vigilance Commission about a case of corruption by a public servant.
According to Nayak, the lasting solution to this problem is to empower information commissions to work in sync with other public authorities such as the police, the courts and human rights commissions to protect RTI users from harm.