New Delhi: On a Republic Day when India celebrated 61 years of justice, equality and liberty, Amar Nath Pandey says he encountered the darkest moment of his life.
In late evening on 26 January, a lone assailant leaped from the folds of darkness in the street outside his house in Uttar Pradesh’s Robertsganj and shot him at close range. The bullet grazed his head above his left ear without causing any fatal injury, but it’s not the attack that has left him shaken. He says it’s the cruel coincidence of the assault with Republic Day, an event he had celebrated a few hours earlier.
A serial applicant under the Right to Information Act (RTI) that grants the common man the right to access information on government schemes, and convenor of Lok Sangharsh Samiti, a group working against corruption, Pandey says 26 January will now always mark a day when someone wanted to kill him for exercising his fundamental right. “I don’t feel safe anymore. What had I asked for more than simple information?’’ he asks.
The information Pandey had sought turned out to be complicated. His RTI queries over the last one year attempted to uncover corruption in the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS), a government project that promises 100 days of guaranteed jobs to poor households every year; Indira Awaas Yojna, a government housing scheme for the poor; and other local projects in his village. Pandey claims that his RTI queries led to threats to his life followed by a road assault by a few unidentified men on a speeding jeep, as mentioned in the First Information Report (FIR) filed by him.
Pandey could have been the 11th RTI activist to die. But the homeopath survived, becoming one of the many RTI activists to have suffered repeated attempts of murder, physical assaults and intimidation in recent months. According to figures available with National RTI Forum (NRF), a national organization based in Lucknow that was established to raise awareness about the Act, at least 10 activists have been killed in the past two years. There are no official figures for threats and assaults but NRF’s president Amitabh Thakur says relentless RTI applications are prompting attacks on the activists.
Just a year ago, Satish Shetty, a 39-year-old social activist, succumbed to injuries after an attacker stabbed his head several times with a sharp weapon outside his home in Pune on a foggy morning of 13 January. On the night of 11 February last year, 55-year-old Vishram Bhai Dodiya, a bookseller in Surat, died on the spot after being hit on the head with a stick and with multiple stab wounds on his back, according to an FIR filing. Amit Jethva, an environmentalist from Gujarat’s Khamba village was murdered outside the state high court on 20 July 2010, as per the FIR. His brother Jignesh Jethwa claims that the attacks happened in response to his RTI queries on illegal mining in the neighbouring Gir reserved forests, which later formed the basis of public interest litigation.
Under the RTI Act, citizens are empowered to seek information on the functioning of the government and are to get what they demand within three months; in matters relating to life and liberty, answers to queries can be demanded within 48 hours. Right to know a public act is a fundamental right. But the movement for greater transparency has now come under a shroud of darkness as individuals increasingly face threats—both veiled and direct—for attempting to expose corruption.
“It’s reflective of complete disruption of the notion of governance in the country,” says Aruna Roy, leading social activist who spearheaded the RTI movement, which led to the enactment of the Act in 2005. Roy, a Magsaysay awardee, says while initial years of the Act uncovered small instances of corruption, violence has escalated as it’s now being used to unearth bigger scams.
Santosh, who uses only one name, a 25-year-old activist with Delhi-based RTI advocacy group Parivartan, didn’t always believe that a simple 20-rupee application for information on food supplies to Public Distribution System outlets could unsettle ration shop owners in her Sunder Nagari colony in New Delhi. Her rounds of government offices were always marked by protesting ration shop owners, who would protest her presence, abuse her and issue open threats before the authorities, she says. Between 2003 and 2009, she says there were nine attacks on her, two of which could have turned fatal. “Twice I was attacked with a blade and my throat was slit by unidentified men. I am not scared but my family worries a lot,” she says.
She later reported the blade attacks to the police through a written complaint.
In later years, Santosh filed about 100 RTI applications on a range of issues, including corruption in PDS, issuance of caste certificates for backward classes, installation of electricity meters and local area development works of the Municipal Corporation of Delhi.
Yet, at the Central Information Commission (CIC)—the apex body established to ensure implementation of the law—RTI applications are often defeated by inordinate delays in responses from concerned officials. Activists say such delays expose individuals to possible threats from those with vested interest. Central and state information commissions, they say, often lack the power to take actions when government agencies resist, often in collusion with police.
“We need to strengthen accountability in regulatory systems and for that, creation of a supervising body is essential. This is when the Lok Pal Bill becomes important,” says Aruna Roy. “It’s not so much about corruption, but arbitrary use of power given by the state.”
The Bill provides for appointment of an ombudsman at the Centre who can look into irregularities by government officials and politicians and redress grievances of citizens.
Wajahat Habibullah, India’s first CIC, says the very fact that attacks are happening proves the RTI Act is making an impact, though a more proactive role needs to be played not only by the commission but also members of the civil society and the police.
“Efficacy of the Act is connected to the political future of the country. The government, which ensured its introduction, passage and implementation, should not fight shy of standing by the activists of the Act who are true ambassadors of democracy,” he says. “To make it work, social and political consciousness of this country have to work together.”
The CIC deplored attacks on activists in a meeting held in September 2010. Its members have also begun discussing the Act and related issues with people engaging actively with the Act. The commission is also taking cognizance to ensure that information sought by RTI filers facing obstruction should be made public and writing to different authorities when such complaints arrive, according to information commissioner Shailesh Gandhi.
“Ninety per cent of the RTI cases seek to access private information, not for public good. And both are equally important, and both kind of people need protection,” chief information commissioner Satyananda Mishra said.
Aruna Roy insists attacks are not just a law and order problem; but Mishra believes otherwise. He says 90% of the cases are not related to public good or many private information is being asked through RTI. “Both are equally important because they are questions posed by public and both kind of people need protection. Actual enforcement can only be done by the police,” he says.
In his tenure as CIC, Habibullah cites a case wherein the commission asked the respondent in the case to provide protection to the applicant.
“A Coal India employee was being threatened for having filed an RTI to find out the donations made by his employer to the Prime Minister’s Relief Fund (PMRF). Responses from his employer and the PMRF on the amount of donations varied after which he received threat calls. We asked Coal India to provide him protection,” says Habibullah.
While the RTI Act has well-intended principles and is anchored in the philosophy of empowering citizens with information for public good, it also suffers from a few loopholes which the government agencies use to evade action.
Exactly a year ago, Ajay Kumar, who runs an NGO, was attacked by thugs—allegedly at the behest of Congress corporator Satbir Sharma—when he, along with municipal corporation officials went to take stock of unauthorized construction in north Delhi.
They had gone supposedly to inspect land occupied by illegal means on the instructions of the central information commissioner, after the corporation failed to provide any answers to an RTI application, according to FIR filing.
While Kumar was repeatedly hit with an iron rod that left him unconsciousness and with a broken nose, the police stood as mute witnesses, he says. Several of his colleagues, too, have been implicated for possession of arms.
Following this incident, information commissioner Gandhi is said to have instructed the police to take action. But the police moved court, saying the commission was not a competent authority it can take orders from. “The police is clearly not comfortable in acting upon the orders of the commission,” states Gandhi. “And if such incidents could happen in Delhi in the presence of police and (perpetrators) can get away with it, it’s a matter of concern.”
Around 263,261 RTI requests were received by the CIC in 2007-2008, the latest data available with the commission show. This excluded the complaints filed with the state authorities.
And, surprisingly, the highest number of rejections for RTI requests has come from the home ministry, under whose control the central information commission itself operates.
Sweeping the old order of corruption is almost impossible without an effective grievance redressal system. The RTI Act, Arvind Kejriwal, founder of Parivartan, says will remain ineffectual and RTI seekers will continue to face threat if whistleblowers aren’t protected.
“Politicians, bureaucrats, police and industrialists are getting richer,” Kejriwal insists. “If anyone indulges in corruption, there’s little chance today that anybody would go to jail, or dismissed from their jobs or their ill-gotten wealth will ever get confiscated.”
Meanwhile, RTI seekers feel vulnerable, giving up pursuing their case midway. Mohit Sharma, an advocate in New Delhi, filed a plea last year seeking information on the unauthorized construction on land controlled by the city municipal corporation. After repeated appeals, when the commission set a final date for reply, three executive engineers landed up at his home and made veiled threats to him and his aging father “to put reason in his son” or “he may meet with an accident”.
“I did not surrender immediately and filed a police compliant,” says Sharma. “But after some thought, I gave up because there was a risk to life and I could see the consequences (of their threats),” says Sharma.
Fear of harassment also prompted N.P. Singh, a doctor, to cancel his RTI application three years ago. Singh filed a complaint with the transport department about the delay in securing his driver’s licence and posed queries relating to general status and procedures of licence eligibility. Instead of a reply, a police officer promptly showed up at his east Delhi home to make a deal one afternoon: recall RTI in exchange for a licence. Singh relented. “I got my licence. But in these matters,” says Singh, “only thugs have their way.”