September 13, 2011
RTI activists are increasingly falling to bullets for exposing wrongdoings in public affairs. Is there any way out?

In 2010, 28 attacks on RTI activists were reported from across the country which included 10 murders. And while all this goes on, authorities perform lip service promising strong action against the guilty and better security to whistle blowers. Needless to say the going is getting tougher for those fighting to make official information public.

The reactionary barrage

Many a times, even prior knowledge of a danger does not help because police fail to gauge the threat perception. Satish Shetty was hacked to death in Pune on January 13 last year even though he had sought police protection after having received threats to his life. Shetty had blown the whistle on a series of land scams in and around Talegaon, Lonavala and Pimpri-Chinchwad. Amit Jethawa of Ahmedabad had also informed the police about the threat calls he got for moving the court against illegal mining around Gir forest. Unknown assailants pumped several bullets into him right outside the Gujarat High Court building on July 20 last year.

Accusations of blackmailing and registration of fake cases against an applicant are other routinely used tactics employed to intimidate him. Goverdhan Singh of Bikaner in Rajasthan has been on run after nine criminal cases were slapped against him within a few days after he presented proof that the district SP and Additional SP forged documents concerning assets of police personnel. Cases were also filed against his family members, friends and lawyer while his house was sealed. Singh’s 25-year-old wife is now representing her husband seeking a probe into all the cases against him by an independent agency. On the other hand, Ramesh Agrawal of Chattisgarh was accused of demanding Rs 5 crore from Jindal Steel Pvt Ltd., just five days after the Ministry of Environment and Forests rejected the company’s thermal power plant project in the state. Agrawal had highlighted the fact that land belonging to Chattisgarh Municipal Development Corporation had been granted for the project in violation of rules.

Dealing with it

Even though a new law has been formulated to protect whistle blowers, it does not cover RTI activists who often work individually with no organisational support to expose wrongdoings.  What can be a government’s policy is such a situation?

Earlier this year, Advocate H.C. Arora, the president of RTI Activists’ Federation Punjab, filed a PIL in the Punjab and Haryana High Court on the issue of protection to RTI activists. In response, the Punjab government formulated a policy under which a whistle-blower activist can approach the concerned District Magistrate or Commissioner of Police who will make an inquiry into the threat perception with help of intelligence wing and district police within 48 hours of receiving the application and provide security in case the request is found to be genuine.

It still needs to be seen to what extent this policy can help. However, Arora feels there could not be a better response from the state government. “I think the policy drafted is quite reasonable since high-level officials have been given the task of inquiry. I hope it serves the purpose well,” he says. Till then self-protection as suggested by Harinesh Pandya, an RTI activist from Gujarat, can be of good help. Pandya feels it’s the individual action of RTI activists that cost them dear. “When you know your RTI application has a potential to expose a scam, it’s better to have more than one person submitting identical applications. It’s easier to target a single person but the vested interests won’t be able to deal with a group. No police can provide security to each and every RTI whistle blower and hence we need to devise such self-protective methods,” he says.

Pandya also has a suggestion for the government: disclose the information suo moto. “The information sought by any RTI petitioner can be put in public domain by the authorities. This way applicant is not the sole bearer of the information and hence can escape the pressure tactics," he adds. Pandya’s non-profit group, Janpath, runs a helpline for RTI whistle blowers that voice records their complaints and forwards them to the state information commission. While the complainant is encouraged to lodge a complaint or FIR at nearest police station, the information commission also asks the concerned district DSP to look into the matter. “The involvement of information commission in the whole process ensures prompt action by the police,” explains Pandya.

The project has done well in Gujarat but involvement of local groups and RTI activists would be required for the concept to succeed in other states. As is true for any battle, defence is the best attack when it comes to ensuring information disclosure.

Listen to Harinesh Pandya of Mahiti Adhikar Gujarat Pahel (MAGP) talking about helpline that saves RTI users from life threats (in Hindi).