ON THE evening of 23 March, lawyer Ram Kumar Thakur was shot dead while returning from a local court to his village in Bihar’s Muzzafarpur district, around 50 km from Patna. Thakur’s kin allege that the sarpanch of Ratnauli village got him killed for refusing to withdraw a case exposing irregularities in the implementation of the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS). The scheme guarantees employment for a minimum of 100 days in a year to all those who demand work through the gram panchayat.
Thakur had found misappropriation of Rs 40 lakh in just one year and had been protesting against the withdrawal of funds in the name of ‘ghost beneficiaries’. What he discovered, however, was just the tip of the iceberg. The Delhi-based Centre for Environment and Food Security (CEFS) had claimed last year that three-fourth of the Rs 8,200 crore meant for the MGNREGS in 2006-11 was siphoned off by government officials in Bihar. The CEFS also moved the Supreme Court, and under pressure, the Bihar government had to act against more than 300 officials and panchayat members.
This was not the first time Thakur had exposed corruption in the use of funds by the panchayat. On several other occasions, too, he had filed applications under the Right to Information (RTI) Act and caught the sarpanch, Raj Kumar Sahni, red-handed. His activism also prompted him to join a group, Bihar MGNREGA Watch, which conducts regular social audits of the employment guarantee scheme in 15 villages.
His work constantly got him into trouble with the sarpanch. Matters came to a boil when Thakur, along with his fellow activists, approached the Special Vigilance Court last year, demanding a probe into the illegalities.
In retaliation, activists allege, the village sarpanch filed two fabricated cases against him. In one of the cases, Thakur was accused of beating a woman, and the other was filed under the Scheduled Castes/Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act.
In December last year, some goons entered Thakur’s house and thrashed his brother. There were also repeated threats that unless he withdraws the case against the panchayat members, he would have to pay for it with his life.
Following the incident, Thakur and his fellow activists wrote to the police asking for protection. The application was ignored as the attack was seen as the result of a “personal dispute”. “He finally paid the price for his activism when the sarpanch, along with five others, shot him point-blank,” says Sujeet Kumar, Thakur’s nephew, who is also a lawyer and was travelling with him on that fateful day. “They fired at me too, but I managed to dodge the bullet.”
Kumar has also accused the local police of being hand-in-glove with Sahni and blamed their negligence for Thakur’s death. “While we were taking him to hospital, the police intercepted our autorickshaw and forcibly shifted him to their unnumbered vehicle,” says Kumar. “They asked us to reach a certain Prashant Hospital, but when we got there, they were nowhere to be found. After the senior lawyers with us enquired about their whereabouts, they were found at a different hospital with Thakur already dead.”
Following protests by the activists, the local Station House Officer was suspended. A Deputy Superintendent of Police has been asked to investigate the matter. “It seems Thakur was asking for some information from the panchayat under the RTI. There was also some personal animosity that could have led to the incident,” says Muzaffarpur District Magistrate Anupam Kumar. “We have not found any direct link with the MGNREGS, but if we find any discrepancies after investigation, we will take action.”
Activists have demanded immediate compensation to Thakur’s family and a probe into the complicity of the police in his death. “This is the fifth case of murder of a RTI activist/whistleblower in Bihar. Taking a serious note of this, the government should work towards a comprehensive law for the protection of such persons,” says a fact-finding report by the National Alliance of People’s Movements.