RTI activists are sitting ducks; 48 killed since 2008

NEW DELHI,IFTIKHAR GILANI : Eleven years since the path-breaking legislation Right to Information (RTI) Act came into force, more than 300 activists seeking information against government officials, local contractors, politicians, land mafia and other vested interests have been attacked, harassed or murdered. As many as 48 people have lost their lives since 2008 as per data available with dna. The data shows the RTI activists are virtual sitting ducks.

On March 28, Vinayak Baliga was killed in Mangaluru in Karnataka by alleged contract killers. Police are investigating whether the killing is related to his series of RTI applications and complaints against a popular Venkataramana Temple run by GSB (Goud Saraswat Brahmin) community, Mangalore Electricity Supply Company Limited, unauthorised constructions from Mangaluru City Corporation and South Canara District Central Cooperative Bank. On January 31, 2015, police exhumed the body of Krupasindhu Sahoo (40) in Odisha. He had dared to file an RTI application seeking to know the details of bringing the green revolution in Eastern India, the amount spent on transplantation of paddy saplings. On January 2012, S Bhuvaneswaran, 38, was hacked to death in the presence of his four-year-old daughter in Kolathur in Tamil Nadu, allegedly for filingRTI applications to retrieve titles on about 18 acres of land belonging to his family and other acquaintances after the plots were forcibly occupied by a gang, allegedly led a the former DMK MLA.

Similarly, on March 2, 2011, Niyamat Ansari was beaten to death by unidentified persons after he was dragged out of his house at Jerua village in Latehar district of Jharkhand for exposing corruption in the NREGA by contractors through the RTI Act. In Nanded district of Maharashtra, Ramdas Ghadegavkar, 43, was killed in 2010 allegedly for exposing corruption in public distribution system (PDS) and sand mafia. On July 25, 2010, a Uttar Pradesh Police home guard Babbu Singh was killed allegedly for seeking information about government funds and work done by his village pradhan in Bahraich district.

According to Suhas Chakma, director of Asian Centre for Human Rights (ACHR), the RTI activists have become most vulnerable to attacks since unlike other human rights defenders, they are not backed by any organisation. “RTI activists are vulnerable because they live in the same areas as public authorities and political leaders who do not want information about their activities to be disclosed. For the most part, human rights defenders receive media attention only when they are killed or seriously injured,” Chakma said.

Last year, the Lok Sabha passed whittled down amendments to the Whistleblowers’ Protection Act. But the bill has been awaiting Rajya Sabha’s approval for over a year now. The Act covers classified documents of the government, including defence deals, and the information has been made off-limits. Protection will not be given in case the whistleblower was the guardian of the information he provided. Only information obtained through RTI will be counted and no protection will be given for information that is beyond its ambit.

“The government is going back on its basic moral obligation of protecting whistleblowers,” said Anjali Bharadwaj of the National Campaign for People’s Right to Information.

Venkatesh Nayak, programme coordinator at the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, also believes that unless specific provisions for the protection of people who seek information are incorporated in the Whistleblowers’ Protection Act, it will not come to their rescue until they make a complaint about corruption or wrongdoing in government to a competent authority in accordance with the procedure described in this law.

The government, however, says the amendments will help protect whistleblowers. “There might be differences over the way each one of us sees it and over what should be the parameters or the extent of safeguard,” said Union minister Jitendra Singh.

It is not only the tale of murders and assaults, but on a number of occasions false cases have been foisted on RTI activists to dissuade them from seeking information.

On June 6, 2011, an attempt was made to frame RTI activist Payi Gyadi by planting a pistol and explosives in his car in Itanagar, Arunachal Pradesh. He had exposed through the RTI Act, the illegal appointments in various departments of the state government on the basis of favouritism and recommendations by some politicians. In same year, activist Ramesh Agarwal was arrested and chained to a hospital bed in Raigarh, Chhattisgarh on the basis of a complaint filed by an industrialist group. He had raised the issue of environmental violations by the business group, which resulted in the cancellation of the environment clearance by the ministry of environment and forests. Pawan Sharma, a resident of Ghaziabad, Uttar Pradesh, also faced similar experience, when he was arrested allegedly on charges of extortion and criminal intimidation in April 2011 for exposing the nexus between builders and officials of the Ghaziabad Development Authority (GDA).