Ask at Your Peril

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RTI1In August this year, a village in the Sahebganj district of Bihar stood witness to a horrific murder. Jawahar Lal Tiwary, a 60-year-old man, disappeared on 10 August. In the days that followed, the police found a mutilated, headless body severed in five parts near the village river. It was confirmed to be Tiwary’s after they found his head, which had been buried in the sand.

Two months before Tiwary was murdered, 48-year-old Guru Prasad was beaten to death by his village pradhan in the Bahriach district of Uttar Pradesh.

The common thread here is that Tiwary and Prasad were both RTI activists who paid with their lives for daring to challenge the system through legitimate means. On 12 October, the country will celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Right to Information Act. However, the tales of the RTI activists, who martyred themselves for trying to hold the government accountable for its actions, will remain unsung.

Tiwary had exposed the huge corruption in the distribution of cash under the flood relief funds in his panchayat, Bangara Nizamat. It was perhaps his long drawn dharna outside the block office of Sahebganj last year which provoked the perpetrators.

Guru Prasad sat on dharna against the misappropriation of village level funds by the pradhan. Prasad had ended his strike after he got assurance of action from block level officers. However, no action was taken against the accused and Prasad’s campaign for justice got him killed.

Since 2005, the quest for information through the RTI Act has left a long trail of blood: Shehla Masood, Satish Shetty, Amit Jethava, Kameshwar Yadav, the list is endless. According statistics released by Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI), in past 10 years, 49 people have been killed and 260 have been assaulted for their RTI activism.

In this year itself, three murders and four cases of assault on activists have been reported. When the Act was passed by the government, it was considered to be a landmark decision. The citizen was made powerful through the Act, but also vulnerable, identifiable and dispensable. Concerns regarding the safety of RTI activists culminated in the formation of the Whistle Blower’s Protection Act (WBA) in 2011. However, reports of assault and murder make it clear that the lives of RTI activists continue to be threatened by those who do not want to be held accountable for corruption.

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Rebuttal

Argument The RTI puts unnecessary burden on government officials

Fact A government official has to spend only two hours per week on RTI applications

Argument People tend to file frivolous RTI applications

Fact Out of 1,000 RTI applications only one percent were found to be frivolous

Source: A study by the RTI Assessment and Advocacy Group and the Centre for Equity Studies

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This makes the State policy towards divulging information and its commitment towards protecting RTI activists questionable. We need to look at the statistics of assault in order to decode where the protection mechanism has failed to provide safety to those who want accountability from the government.

When it comes to the number of RTIs filed each year, Maharashtra tops the list. The common people of the state have readily taken up RTI as a tool to battle local level corruption as well as high profile land scams. Incidentally, the state also tops the list of assaults on RTI activists with a total of 10 murders and 61 assaults so far.

When activist Satish Shetty, noted for exposing many land scams in Maharashtra, was murdered in January 2010, the Bombay High Court asked the state government to provide protection to those who complained of threat or of being attacked for filing RTI applications. The statistics speak loud and clear that the order was never followed by the state government.

Gujarat has presented a similar picture. It stands second, after Maharashtra, when it comes to assault on RTI activists. In July 2010, Amit Jethva was shot dead in front of the Gujarat High Court in broad daylight. Later on, Shiva Solanki, the prime accused in the case, was given a ticket by the BJP to contest civic polls from jail. Recently, he has been declared as the president of the Kodinar municipality while the murder of Jethva remains unresolved. BJP leader Dinu Solanki is the other accused in the case. He was the sitting Member of Parliament from Junagadh at the time of the murder.

However, despite the risks involved, the number of RTI applications is increasing with each passing year. Venkatesh Nayak, coordinator, Access to Information Programme, Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, says, “Attacks should be seen as an attempt to deter those seeking information under the RTI Act, even then applications are swelling every year. Around 40 lakh such RTI requests may have been made to various public authorities across the country during the year in 2011-12 alone.” He further informs Tehelka that such applications might increase to as high as 52 lakh this year. Nayak holds Public Information Officers (PIOs) responsible for attacks on activists, “In majority of the cases, it is the PIOs who leak the identities of activists to those whom the RTI will affect.”

While the public debate on protection of RTI activists has taken a backseat, Nayak believes that the system has slowly started responding. The National Crime Records Bureau has added a new category which will collect data from across the country on attacks on RTI activists. However, the data collection template has many loopholes. It will record information of only those cases which involve ‘grevious hurt of varying degrees’.

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