Martyrs to transparency

Published : Sep 10, 2010 00:00 IST

IN AHMEDABAD, ON July 21, paying tribute to Amit Jethwa.-AJIT SOLANKI/AP

IN AHMEDABAD, ON July 21, paying tribute to Amit Jethwa.-AJIT SOLANKI/AP

In the five years of the Right to Information Act, activists who use it have faced reprisal across the country.

OCTOBER 2010 marks the fifth anniversary of the Right to Information (RTI) Act. The Act and its implementation have been described in both administrative circles and civil society as revolutionary , a blow for transparency, a check on corrupt practices and a people's intervention tool with tremendous impact. Social activists and Union Ministers have pointed to the many gains that have accrued through the Act. Aruna Roy, one of the pioneers of the civil society movement that led to the formulation of the Act, points out that the whole debate that led to the moratorium on Bt brinjal arose from an RTI application.

However, the run-up to the anniversary is turning out to be brutal and bloody for social activists who have striven hard to make the Act count. They are under attack in large parts of the country for using it to expose corruption, instil transparency in the functioning of various wings of government and inculcate a better work culture in the administration. As many as nine RTI activists have been killed in the first eight months of 2010. The number of activists under physical and other forms of harassment runs into hundreds. Maharashtra accounted for four of the nine killings, while two activists were murdered in Gujarat. Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Andhra Pradesh reported one killing each.

According to a number of activists and observers, including Aruna Roy, the common factor in almost all the attacks is a nexus between mafias, politicians and sections of the bureaucracy. Aruna Roy told Frontline that these murders and other attacks evoked deep concern.

Parveen Amanulla of the Bihar RTI Manch said there was a need to address not just the attacks but a whole gamut of issues ingrained in them. The investigation into these attacks, the manner in which many real issues are sidelined, even leading to the police penalising RTI activists who are already the victims of attack, and the way in which different arms of the government seek to dilute the provisions of the RTI Act, all these need to be addressed in the context of the attacks, he said.

Apart from all this, says Aruna Roy, the climate of economic liberalisation has given private players and the criminal interests associated with them a new drive to make efforts to exploit political and bureaucratic influence for quick gains. This climate, too, is causing a number of attacks on social activists involved in exposing corruption, she says.

The economist C.P. Chandrasekhar, who has explored and highlighted the multidimensional impact of globalisation and liberalisation on Indian society in general and the Indian economy in particular, told Frontline that these policies and the climate created by them had opened up very many areas for economic and administrative malpractices by private players, especially the big corporates.

The use of land allotment, allocation and acquisition for industrial and commercial purposes is one such area. Any number of cases of bureaucratic collusion in the acquisition of land and its allotment to private players have come up in the past few years. Inside information on changes and alterations in import duty tariffs is another arena of corruption and collusion. Disinvestment, too, exposed vulnerabilities in this regard, said Chandrasekhar.

His observations have been borne out by instances such as the sale of the Airport Centaur hotel in Mumbai in 2002. The A.L. Batra group bought Airport Centaur for Rs.83 crore and sold it four months later for Rs.115 crore, pocketing a cool profit of Rs.32 crore.

A number of RTI activists have probed the use of special economic zone (SEZ) provisions by bureaucrats and mafias to misappropriate land, and these have led to attacks. Raigad in Maharashtra and Jamshedpur in Jharkhand provide examples.

A close examination of the murder cases and the allegations around them lends credence to the contention that the RTI process is being challenged from different quarters, including sections within the government and the power structure. A case in point is the killing of Amit Jethwa, 33, in broad daylight near the Gujarat High Court on July 20. Jethwa's was a familiar name in the world of wildlife conservation, especially on account of the activities of the Gir Nature Youth Club, of which he was president. He campaigned to prevent mining around the Girnar Wildlife Sanctuary and ensure the safety of Gir's lions and other wildlife. He used the RTI Act and other legal provisions to advance his campaign. According to his family, Jethwa had received threats for a long time from the Bharatiya Janata Party Member of Parliament from Junagadh. The provocation, apparently, was the public interest petitions Jethwa had filed linking the MP to illegal mining in the surroundings of the Girnar Wildlife Sanctuary.

Jethwa had also initiated litigation against an illegal ashram within the sanctuary. There was an eviction order against the ashram, but forest officers hesitated to execute it on account of its religious' status. In October-November every year, a five-day festival of sorts is held at the ashram, which seriously disturbs the wildlife and damages the environment.

Jethwa was responsible, through his petitions, for the appointment of two more Information Commissioners in the Gujarat Information Commission. He was also instrumental in ensuring that a Lokayukta was appointed for Gujarat, a post that remained vacant for almost seven years. Clearly, his interventions exposed the nexus between politicians, bureaucrats and mafias.

The cases in Maharashtra, too, follow a similar pattern. Satish Shetty, 39, who was killed on January 13 when he was on his morning walk, had exposed several land scams in the Talegoan, Lonavala and Pimpri-Chinchwad belt between Mumbai and Pune. He had revealed how a builder had constructed a bungalow on government land and also exposed a kerosene black market and a ration card racket. Using RTI, Shetty had revealed irregularities such as the construction of an unauthorised bungalow on railway land for an elected office-bearer. The bungalow had to be demolished after the expose.

Dattatraya Patil, who was hacked to death on May 22, was an anti-corruption crusader. Among the cases he had exposed were the bogus registration of 11 cooperative handloom societies in Ichalkaranji, Kolhapur district, Maharashtra, and a corruption racket that resulted in the dismissal of a deputy superintendent of police and a police inspector. The Anti-Corruption Bureau had initiated proceedings against a number of local municipal corporators on the basis of a complaint filed by Patil.

Arun Sawant, who was killed in Thane in February, had used the RTI Act to expose the nexus between politicians and contractors who had been awarded civil works projects.

Vitthal Gite, a farmer and flour-mill owner of Beed district in Maharashtra, had used the RTI route to uncover a number of irregularities in the utilisation of government funds meant for schools in the region. On April 21, 2010, a group of persons clashed with Gite's group. Gite was killed in this clash. The police brushed aside the case as one resulting from old enmity.

Past enmity was given as the reason by the Bihar police, too, after the murder of RTI activist Shashidhar Mishra of Begusarai district on February 14. Mishra was shot dead by unidentified men on motorcycles near his residence. His zeal in exposing corruption cases at the panchayat and block levels in the district led to people calling him Khabri Lal' (man of news). By registering his murder as one resulting from past enmity, the police clearly overlooked the larger dimensions of the case.

The last of the reported RTI-related murders in the final week of July involved an Uttar Pradesh police home guard. Here, too, past enmity came into play. The police home guard, Vijay Pratap alias Babbu Singh, 32, was done to death allegedly for using the RTI Act to get information about government funds and the work done by his village pradhan in Bahraich. The accused pradhan's husband and four others were arrested and in police records the murder was the fallout of a 40-year-old land dispute between the families of Vijay Pratap and the pradhan.

The investigation into the sole RTI-related murder case in Andhra Pradesh, that of Sola Ranga Rao, 30, of Krishna district, has also got linked to a record of past enmity, sidelining the RTI activist angle. Rao had filed RTI applications seeking information on the alleged siphoning off of funds meant for a drainage system in his village. By all indications, questions relating to this were sidelined in the investigation, which is now focussed on Ranga Rao's condition on the fateful day and on a land dispute he had with a neighbour. Reportedly, there was a court injunction declaring Rao an illegal occupant on a piece of land through which the drainage passes.

RTI activists face many forms of persecution. According to Parveen Amanulla, the Bihar RTI Manch has listed all cases of attacks on activists since the inception of the Act. The record shows that in the past two years around 50 activists had been assaulted and harassed in different parts of the State. The harassment is not only by politicians, officials and criminals, but also by law enforcement officers. They foist false cases and trouble activists day in and day out. Cases pertaining to harassment of applicants were being closed summarily without a penalty being imposed on the guilty officers, Amanulla told Frontline.

In Maharashtra, among the cases of assaults was a man's attempt to shoot the civic rights activist Nayana Kathpalia in her apartment in Mumbai's Churchgate area (story on page 25). In March, environmentalists Sumaira Abdulali and Naseer Jalal and a team of journalists travelling with them were chased on a highway, stopped and attacked by a mob of around 20 persons. In April, Abhay Patil, a lawyer and RTI activist, was threatened by a mob in Jalgaon. They demanded that he withdraw a corruption charge he had made against Dilip Wagh, a member of the Legislative Assembly.

Over and above the attacks and false cases, says Amanulla, RTI activists have had to confront the political leaderships of governments at the Centre and in the States as they made changes in policy aimed at diluting the provisions of the RTI Act. The Bihar government cited procedural inconveniences to initiate changes in the Act, including making it mandatory for below poverty line (BPL) applicants to pay money at the rate of Rs.2 per page for information exceeding 10 pages. Bihar is not alone in initiating such unfriendly measures.

Bureaucratic resistance, as RTI activists call it, is very much a part of the system in other States too. In Andhra Pradesh, there has been consistent reluctance by the administration to part with critical information. No less a person than Governor E.S.L. Narasimhan expressed concern about the Act being misused by vested interests in the name of NGOs and so-called social groups.

Several senior bureaucrats in Andhra Pradesh are of the view that the RTI Act has become a fault-finding mechanism, a tool to blackmail people. The Act, they say, has impeded government officials from discharging their duties effectively. The State's Information Commission officials, however, dismiss the charge. Why should the official hesitate to give information if the deal is transparent? asked one of them.

The United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government at the Centre, too, has made attempts to bring curbs on RTI. Its repeated but as yet unfulfilled moves to bring about several changes in the RTI Act are well known. At one point, it even proposed to exempt Cabinet decisions from the purview of the Act. But Prithiviraj Chavan, Minister of State for Department of Personnel and Training, asserts that the government has an open mind on this and that no steps will be taken without wide-ranging consultations (see interview).

According to Aruna Roy, the challenges that RTI faces militates against the thrust of the original campaign for right to information. She said:

The whole nature of the right to information campaign arose out of a demand to share power. It arose out of the premise that in a democracy people must have the power to access not only services and resources but also information on policy planning and government functioning. It was premised on the idea of people's inspection to determine whether there is ethical functioning of the government or not, whether there are situations in which officials do not implement the law.

An important and apparent issue in this regard is indeed corruption. But behind it lies a whole gamut of different situations, from livelihood to policy to disenfranchisement to many other issues. So, if you tell me RTI has begun to happen, it is not a question of merely applying and getting information. The crux of RTI is the quest for a transparent, accountable government, which extends beyond the individual claims towards grievances. And to do this there are many areas where new ground will have to be broken, as in the case of judicial accountability, and a whole new system of governance and a new culture of politics have to emerge, where the accountability of an individual working for the system will be partly to the system but mostly to the people of this country.

Clearly, the larger movement related to RTI has a long way to go to fulfil this vision, especially in the context of the attacks it has faced.

With inputs from Lyla Bavadam, Anupama Katakam and M. Rajeev.

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