Dead Right – RTI Act 2005 and its Bloody Revolution

THREE RIGHT to Information (RTI) activists were murdered in this country in three months — Datta Patil on 26 May, Amit Jethwa on 20 July and Ramdas Ghadegaonkar on 27 August. Besides, TEHELKA has tracked many more who are living in fear of their lives. Here we tell heartbreaking stories of petitioners who have been harassed for having the temerity to use this Act. This is not the kind of stock-taking that a democracy should be doing to mark five years of the RTI Act 2005.

Amit Jethwa, a 32 year old RTI activist from Gir, was shot dead by two assailants on a motorbike outside the Ahmedabad High Court on the 20th of July. Less than a month ago Jethwa had used information obtained under the Right To Information Act 2005 to expose the network of illegal mining run by BJP MP Dinu Solanki in the Gir forest area. On the 7th of September, the MP’s nephew Shiva Solanki was arrested for Jethwa’s murder.

The horror of this story is a small part of the sweeping phenomenon of intimidation, harassment and murder of RTI petitioners throughout the country. 9 RTI activists have been killed this year.

But murder is usually the last step in a build up of harassment that takes many forms. Invention of cases and imprisonment is the most common form of police harassment, but it is not unlikely for the force to physically assault petitioners either.

In other cases, intimidation is dealt out via less ‘legitimate’ channels. From Jharkhand, Sumit Kumar Mahato, Convenor of the RTI Forum, talks about being manhandled by goons for seeking information about funds spent on the building of a road. Rolly Shivhare of Jaano Re Abhiyaan from MP says, “I filed an application to ask for the Midday Meal Scheme budget from the Panchayat and Rural Welfare Department. I received a threatening phone call asking what I would do with this information. The caller said he was the ‘Development Commissioner’. When the police traced the call, it was found that it had indeed come from his office, though the commissioner himself denied any knowledge of it.”

RTI activists have learnt through unfortunate examples not to take such initial threats lightly. Down south in Karnataka, Venkatesh, 32, had filed an application to expose the Bangalore Development Authorities’ involvement in a land scam case. Despite receiving threats, he continued to pursue the case alone. In April 2009, Venkatesh’s body was found near the divider of a highway. His death was registered as a traffic accident. The RTI Study Centre filed an RTI application for the post-mortem report which revealed that his head injury was caused by a blunt instrument. On investigation, four people were charged. They have all been linked to the contractors involved in the scam.

Malay Bhattacharya, secretary of the West Bengal RTI Manch differentiates between the harassment in urban and rural areas, “In urban West Bengal, applicants are harassed by the police who come to their house and threaten them and their family members.” In villages, he says, the authorities ensure that those filing RTI applications are boycotted socially.

Patterns differ from state to state but every state can be mapped with such stories, each one more horrific than the other. From tiny tribal villages to the bustling lanes of Mumbai and Delhi; from farmers and lorry drivers to middle class professionals- cases of criminal harassment following RTI applications abound everywhere. The monitory and emotional fallouts in all cases are life altering for the petitioners and their families.

In most cases, the petitioners that are attacked have already been through harassment, because of rigorous attempts to obstruct their application. Almost always the information is refused at first. Harinesh Pandya, founder of Mahiti Adhikar Gujarat Pahel says, “Under s.4 of the Act, all departments must pro-actively make mandatory disclosures. But they routinely fail to do so. From over 55,000 calls received on our helpline, nearly 80% relate to information that is already covered under S. 4.”

It is common practice for officials to say the information one is asking for endangers ‘national security’ or is ‘secret’. “We were denied basic information like the names of people booked under the UAPA and the number of Special Police Officers in Orissa,” says Sharanya Nayak, from Action Aid, Orissa. In almost every state rules that go against either the spirit or the letter of the Act impede its affectivity (effectivity? check this). For instance, Chittaranjan Behera, freelance consultant on governance issues, informs us that the Orissa government’s rules relating to payment required to access information make it extremely difficult for villagers to avail of their rights. Similarly, activist Izhar Ansari tells us, “In UP the summons for the appeal hearings are sent by plain post by the State Information Commission – not even registered or speed post.” So often those summoned claim not to have received it to get away.

What is most dangerous is that in many instances the RTI application form requires the applicant to provide their permanent address, photo identification and father/spouse names .The availability of these details makes the applicant vulnerable to attacks.

So what needs to be done to reinstate the spirit of the Act? Clearly, there’s a need to re-assess the rules for filing applications made by each state under the Act and ensure that they do not undermine its intent.

Secondly, it is imperative that all departments covered by the Act are made to follow S. 4 and make mandatory disclosures pro-actively. This will reduce the burden of numbers of applications and protect applicants against the risk of having to ask for it personally. To begin with the Commissions can allocate a PIO from within each department who takes on the responsibility of disclosure. In addition, providing monetary compensation to applicants who have to file for information that must be in the public domain will act as a deterrent for the errant departments.

Thirdly, a central advisory body, similar to the one set up to supervise NREGA, must be constituted. This council, comprising all stakeholders, can act as mediator between the users of the Act and the government. Its principal role will be to monitor problems of implementation and complaints of harassment and make recommendations on these bases.

The fourth issue which needs to be addressed is grievance redressal. RTI applications throw up three kinds of issues- related to monetary corruption, improper governance or misuse of power. Once you have the information you seek, it can only be useful if it allows you to take action against wrongdoers. The existing investigative agencies are either toothless or biased. For instance, in most states the Anti Corruption Bureau directs a complaint back to the department against which it is filed for rectification. The police, on the other hand, when not directly the subject of the complaint, are almost always in cohorts with the politician-bureaucrat-businessman nexus implicated. Setting up Ombudsman bodies – Lokayuktas – can fill in this vacuum if they are empowered to act strongly and the public plays a role in electing the members. These Lokayuktas will investigate charges of corruption against different organs of the government. Similarly a properly enabled and constituted nationwide Public Grievances Commission can take up issues of mis-governance where these organs are not functioning properly.

Finally, people’s movements should take up the harassment of RTI activists in one of two ways- whenever harassment is reported in a case, several applications by different persons or organizations must be filed for the information being sought by the harassed person. It is always more difficult to silence a collective voice. In the unfortunate instance of an RTI activist being murdered or tortured, civil society groups should focus their attention and ensure the information the individual was seeking is brought out. This will act as a deterrent to those responsible for such crimes.

However, no legislative reform is complete without a reform of the executive that implements it. This reform too must begin within the Commissions themselves. A source, who does not wish to be named, reveals that in UP all Information Commissioners are political appointees. “Four out of eleven are affiliated to the BSP, seen in every major rally,” says this source. “And the rest are from the Samajwadi Party, who will be replaced by candidates from the ruling party as soon as their term runs out.” This is a nation wide trend. In Haryana, Subhash, Editor of India Post – an RTI newsletter that is published fortnightly from Rohtak filed applications that revealed shocking corruption within the State Information Commission.

At the root of this is the lack of transparency in the selection procedure. Centrally, the PM along with a cabinet minister nominated by him and the leader of opposition choose the Commissioners. At the state level the selection is carried out by the CM, one of his ministers and the opposition leader of the Legislative assembly. In principle the Act envisages people from all walks of life in the Commission – allotting a greater role to civil society. However in practice the commission is seen as an extension of the civil services, populated almost entirely by retired bureaucrats who are so entrenched in the system, it is impossible for them to act against their own colleagues. To repair this, posts in the commissions must be reserved for members of civil society who do not have a background in government service.

All of these changes can and should be brought about without amending the Act, because over the last couple of years the government has proposed several amendments that will water down its effect. There is a fear that opening up the Act to improve it might make it vulnerable to more regressive changes as well.

Besides, the drafting of the Act to a great extent is competent in itself. The larger problem lies with its implementation that requires political will. And given that the Act is under the supervision of the Ministry of Personnel, Public Grievances and Pensions, a portfolio held by the PM himself, the culpability for its failure goes to the very top.

This backlash against petitioners is proof of the potency of the RTI. But what is it that is making thousands of ordinary citizens—who have hardly ever used laws without the interface of lawyers and law-keepers– risk life and liberty for this Act? India fought long and hard for democracy in a movement that has informed the imagination of every generation since. Today its very idea is endangered for an electorate that has limited choices when it comes to choosing leaders. This Act provides an opportunity for every single citizen to participate in the governance of the country by asking questions about decisions made by the state. And when citizens set out to reclaim their right to govern, there is bound to be a struggle for the inversion of power. Many activists see this as the new fight for freedom. But Right to Life is more fundamental to freedom. And without it, Right to Information cannot fulfill its revolutionary potential.


The farmer who knew too much

Datta used RTI to expose the worst scams in Ichakarlanji. He was murdered in May.

47 year old Datta Patil was a farmer by profession. He would leave his modest family home at Ichalkaranji town, near Kolhapur, at 4:45 pm every day. Astride his Hero Honda motorcycle, he would visit the family’s sugar cane fields – 6 km away at Shivnakawadi, inspect them and return by 6 pm.

But on May 26, 2010, Patil did not return at the usual time. Instead, his mutilated body was discovered by a farm hand. Autopsy has established that Patil had been blinded with chilly powder, then slashed and stabbed to death with swords at 5:45 pm. Further investigations reveal that Patil’s assailants numbered six – five of whom resided in a slum at Shahpur, one at Ichalkaranji.

But why did these assailants brutally murder a small-time farmer? Nothing was stolen from him, and his motorcycle was left lying next to his body. Investigations are still on and answers are not easy for the police to find. But their key lies in the fact that Patil was also Kolhapur’s best-known RTI activist. He had filed RTI applications and exposed corruption among politicians as well as bureaucracy. He had used RTI as a tool to obstruct horse-trading in the Kolhapur Municipal Corporation. Here, 17 corporators have allegedly shifted from Congress to the NCP-BJP combine in exchange for bribes that range from 25 to 50 lakh rupees per corporator. Patil had obtained incriminating documents and filed the same in a writ petition against the corporators at the Bombay High Court. “Any one of these corporators has motive for murder,” says Shyamanand, Patil’s elder brother. So does Jaywant Rao Awade, an MP from Latur, who is the President of a Sugar Cooperative at Ichalkaranji. Patil filed RTI applications to prove that the ‘new’ sugar cooperative he has obtained grants from the government to build was actually a sick private concern. The scam that Patil alleged and sought to prove through these RTIs totaled Rs 130 crores Also, Awade’s sons Sanjay and Rajiv hold important positions in the cooperative, whereas for more than one family member to hold such posts is not allowed by law. Other people with motive are members of the Ichalkaranji Nagarpalika, because Patil filed RTIs to prove that their Rs 67 crores out of their Rs 220 crore water supply project are being siphoned away. Finally, Patil had taken on the police as well. He had filed a series of RTI applications which proved how the Superintendent of Police K Padmanabhan had set up a police station without proper government sanction. More motive for murder, and it’s cover up.

Patil attended school only up to the tenth standard. But he read a lot of B R Ambedkar’s writings, and was inspired by them to be a social worker. A turning point in his life was meeting an Indian Express journalist named Vasant Rao Pimparkare, who would have long discussions with him on how a common man could transform society – without being a politician. He went on to meet other journalists and social workers, including Anna Hazare. He also met police officials like D Merashi, a PSI with the Anti Corruption Bureau who said to him: “We can erase corruption, but we cannot take the first step – as we’re a part of the same establishment that we have to work against. We need a man like you to get us started.”

Patil got them started. He filed a series of anti-corruption cases in public interest. “With the passing of the RTI Act he could bring out evidence,” says Shyamanand. “The RTI got him results.” And death. Patil’s wife, two sons and one daughter share a dilapidated house with his brothers’ families. Shyamanand is carrying on the cases that Patil has left behind. He is filing more RTI applications, where needed, to see them to their end. “But the family is scared,” he says. “Patil’s daughter – the eldest of his three children – feels this fear more than the others.” She doesn’t let her uncle travel out on a motorcycle to inspect the family’s sugarcane fields. She is scared he might not return.


Did curiosity kill?

An investigation into a controversial sand mafia case might have cost Ramdas Ghadegaonkar his life

RAMDAS GHADEGAONKAR
RAMDAS GHADEGAONKAR
MAHARASHTRA

In death, as in life, Ramdas Ghadegaonkar is stuck in ‘due process’. Ghadegaonkar’s body was found at Naya Monda, in Maharashtra’s Nanded district, at around 11 pm on August 27, 2010. Initial reports that spread like wildfire through Nanded said he had been stoned to death at around 7 pm. Yet the local police station has registered his death as an accident. Nanded’s Superintendent Of Police, Sandeep Karnik, maintains, “there were no external injuries on his body”.

If only things were so simple. Nanded is the hometown and erstwhile constituency of Maharashtra’s Chief Minister Ashok Chavan. It’s still a Congress bastion. And Ghadegaonkar was a member of the Shiv Sena. So an angry protest has been sparked off by Shiv Sena Zilla Pramukh Dilip Thakur. This spark has set the local papers on fire. It has caught on to national news to transform into a raging inferno that the Sena leaders are basking in the glow of. A postmortem of Ghadegaonkar’s body has been ordered and carried out. Why? What would the nation want with a Shiv Sainik murdered in a small town?

Truth is, Ghadegaonkar hadn’t visited the Sena office in three months before his demise. And he had joined the Sena only three years ago. Well before that, and since, Ghadegaonkar has been – first and foremost – an RTI activist. His death is the ninth death of an RTI activist this year. And he is still stuck in due process. For in Nanded, a post mortem report takes fifteen days to be prepared – and Ghadegaonkar’s is still in the waiting.

And due process had paid off before for 43 year old Ghadegaonkar. Hailing from a village called Ghadegaon, he worked in a clothes shop for fifteen years after passing his class 10. “Then things began to change,” says his brother Shivaji. “He would leave home early in the morning and come back late at night. He would keep talking about some andolan or the other.” What andolan? Ghadegaonkar had joined the Janta Dal, but politics was never his mainstay. Social activism was. “He had a group of friends – local activists and journalists – who would ‘inspire’ him,” says Shivaji, not knowing whether to rue or be proud of his brother’s lofty ideals. “He did whatever he did for the people.” Corruption, a simple but core issue in such parts, was the target that Ghadegaonkar set his sights on. When his newfound circle of friends told him about the RTI Act, he knew he had a shoulder on which to rest his gun.

And fire. Ghadegaonkar hit bulls eye by filing an RTI questioning the allotment of food grains under the Public Distribution System. An investigation spurred by his efforts revealed how most of these grains were being black-marketed mid-way. His next target was the sand mafia. Contractors were paying their way into silencing officials as they freeloaded on sand which belonged to the state. Moreover, they were flouting contract norms by using machines when they had a deal with the state to provide employment to the poor. Ghadegaonkar’s RTI put a stop to this. It is rumoured to have caused Rs 15 lakh worth of penalty to certain contractors.

To whom? This is not known. “He wouldn’t make his family a part of his activism,” says his brother. Ghadegaonkar has left behind a wife and two sons aged seven and thirteen. His eighteen year old daughter is married. She has fallen terribly ill on hearing of her father’s death. His wife can’t afford that luxury. In terms of material wealth, Ghadgaonkar has left behind an acre of farmland, which his wife has to now look after, and on it a one room hut.

“The RTI doesn’t fit into Shiv Sena’s modus operandi,” says Prakash Marewar, a fellow Shiv Sainik. This is hardly surprising given that after Shiv Sainiks have gotten away with a plethora of criminal acts, Ghadegaonkar died while lawfully exercising his right to information. “It was made clear to Ghadegaonkar that his RTIs were his own business – so we don’t know the details of the sand mafia case,” adds Marewar. All that is known is that Ghadegaonkar had an argument with two or three men at around 2 pm, at Naya Monda itself, on the day of his demise. The argument nearly came to blows, and policemen who were around had to intervene to ward off a fight. This is what local witnesses say. But the police deny any knowledge. National coverage of his death has led Shivaji to hope that the CBI will come in on the case. “But that will only be possible after the post mortem report is out,” says Shivaji. “If it takes too long,” he adds. “I will file an RTI.” That will cut through the process.


The Caged Birds’ Anthem

10 activists are jailed for demanding proper implementation of the RTI in Mumbai.

Srikant Prabhu is a 68 year old veterinarian doctor from Mumbai. His voice trembles when he talks and he has trouble hearing but he logs his complaints with the earnestness of a child. “MHADA gave away my flat for redevelopment even though it didn’t qualify,” he says. The only weapon he had against a powerful builder lobby was the RTI. After infinite visits to the commission to plead for information he thought he rightfully deserves, his appeal came up for hearing in May 2009. Not even in his wildest dreams could he have imagined that he would spend that night in prison. Nor could any of the other 9 activists who were put behind bars that fateful day for demanding proper implementation of the RTI Act. Krishnaraj Rao narrates the antecedents of this act of terror. “On attending hearings at the State Information Commission in Mumbai we identified two major problems. The Public Information Officers who refuse information were not being asked to justify the refusal as required by the Act. Nor were they being penalized when the refusal was found to be unjustified. So, we began to urge the Information commissioner to bring about reforms in this area. In May 2009, after months of putting us off, the Commission decided to silence us once and for all.” On the day of Prabhu’s hearing 9 of them accompanied him with a letter outlining the shortcomings of the commission. Before handing it in, one of them decided to sing the national anthem. The commissioner refused to stand up. Instead he called the cops and had them arrested for singing the anthem in an ‘inappropriate manner’ and ‘forcing their way’ into a court hearing, even though it is by law an open court. “In Arthur Road Jail, as we spent two nights in extreme discomfort, we found out that the FIR also included rioting, assault and other criminal charges that were not made out,” adds Rao, the shock of betrayal still fresh in his voice. “We have been out on security since but have received the chargesheet only in June this year. It has over a hundred pages missing from the middle, and I think they might add to it later.”

The case came up for first hearing in August. But Rao has not given up on the RTI. He blogs on the victimization of activists and looks for solutions to the problems of the Act. After years of activism, he is so used to harassment, he cannot differentiate it from the integrals of his job. But many of the others are finding it hard to cope with the harassment of fighting a criminal case and deal with its stigma in their conservative middle class environments. Prabhu’s wife had a nervous breakdown when she was told he has been arrested. 56 year old Ravikiran Haldipur is a high school teacher. He tries to imagine his father’s past as a freedom fighter to cope with his ordeal. 49 year old Chauhan struggles to make sense of the irony that his singing the national anthem could land them in jail. “For seven generations my family has been in the army but today the real enemies of the country are within it so I became an RTI activist,” he explains. “It is the one good thing that has happened to this country after independence,” he says of the Act. When Gaurang Vora, 48, a pathologist by profession also falls back on the example of the freedom struggle to justify his fight, one begins to see clearly that for a generation that inherited the dreams of independence straight from its harbingers, the right to participate in governance through the RTI Act has become the meaning of freedom. But it is not easy to hold on to this meaning after their personal liberty has been put on stake with such callous ease by authorities. When Prabhu tells you that he has still not received the information he was appealing for on that day the difficulty of their larger pursuits becomes even more entrenched.


The leak he rejected

Gopubandhu was beaten, jailed and lost all he owned

GOPUBANDHU CHHATRIA
GOPUBANDHU CHHATRIA

PHOTO: SHARAT KUMAR
PUTEL

In a remote village called Jarasingha, in Orissa’s Bolangir district, Gopubandhu Chhatria (45), born into a family of poor Dalit farmers, has been tilling his share of less than an acre of land ever since he can remember. A couple of years ago the Block Development officer of the area passed orders for a portion of his land to be taken for the construction of a check dam. Chhatria was not compensated but he believed in the project too much to care. For a farmer at the mercy of erratic rainfall year after year, continued supply of water for irrigation holds the promise of a life of sustenance and dignity. But his hope was shortlived—- the dam was built with such substandard material, that it leaked out the water meant to irrigate farmlands.

After he had fruitlessly knocked on many doors to complain, a clerk in the collector’s office told Chhatria about the RTI Act. In 2008, armed with a booklet detailing the procedure in Oriya, Chhatria went on to become the first person from his district to file an application and ask the authorities about how they had spent the money sanctioned for the dam. He believed in this tiny booklet as he had in the promise of development. In February 2009 the Assistant Block Development Officer summoned him to his office and after refusing to answer any of his questions, offered him a sum of Rs. 10000 to not bring up the matter again. When Chhatria refused this bribe he was beaten up in the ABDO’s office itself. As he stood outside the office wailing, policemen from the local police station arrived and arrested him on charges of assault and for ‘creating a ruckus’ in the ABDO’s office.

For four days, he was locked up and beaten. He was given no food nor water for the first three days and not allowed to meet or speak to anyone either. For the whole of next year Chhatria fought his case drawing on every bit of his meager resources. Finally on the 24th of July 2010, he was acquitted of all charges.

But his land, which he had hoped to turn fertile, and filed an RTI for, had been mortgaged in this process. Chhatria is now a landless labour, sustaining a family of three young children, an aging father and wife on daily wages of Rs 70. “There are days when I have to ask my wife to work as a labourer to make ends meet”, he says in a low voice. But the fear that usually keeps ordinary folks from taking on the system has given way in the face of extreme hardships. All the corruption and injustice he sees around him is now part of his own reality. He has gone on to file RTI applications to enquire into corruption related to development funds, distribution of land and grains to the poor and NREGA. He has received no information from any of these RTIs, only fresh threats. But Information about the check damn on his land did come finally – eight months after his arrest. He has written his complaint based on it to the Chief Minister of Orissa. He believes he will hear from him. “I believe the light of justice will spread across the country,” says Chhatria, who lives in a dilapidated hut with no electricity. “Because I routinely pray for this.”


‘They said they’d kill me’

Goverdhan Singh asked policemen about their assets. He is now on the run

GOVERDHAN SINGH
GOVERDHAN SINGH
RAJASTHAN

Goverdhan Singh, 30, has been on the run for the last six months. In February this year he had filed a case against the SP and Additional SP of Bikaner district for forging the documents that an RTI application filed by him had asked for. As soon as the High Court ruled against them, the force unleashed its vendetta. Within a couple of days nine criminal cases were filed against Singh. Similar cases were filed against his family, friends and lawyer. His house was sealed and the police confiscated all personal property. During the raid one of the officers told his aging mother that her son would be killed in a fake encounter if she didn’t urge him to withdraw his case. Immediately after, she suffered a brain hemorrhage that left her blind in one eye. Singh breaks down while narrating this last incident but otherwise his resolve is steely. “All I want is that an agency outside of Bikaner investigate this. Then I am sure all the cases against me will be proven to be false. How can the police that has manufactured them be expected to do justice with me?” he asks, his logic as infallible as his faith in the legal system. Singh claims his wife was beaten up during the raid as well. Now the 25 year old who has spent most of her adult life as a traditional Rajput woman in Purdah, has taken to fighting her husband’s case, representing him before authorities while he is in hiding. In this period he has been able to meet her and their infant son only once briefly.

The birth of Singh’s tragedy can be traced back, like many others, to the passage of the RTI Act in 2005. Enthused by its possibilities, Singh, began to take on the corruption in the system by filing RTI applications and following up the information he received by FIR’s against those incriminated. He claims to have taken on the might of politicians in land scams and bank authorities in frauds, but it was only when he took on the police, that threats that always loomed large finally materialized. Singh worked as a collection agent for telecom companies, a line of work that is often dubious in reputation. As he changes disguises, fleeing cities, friendless and afraid, Singh asks, his voice breaking with despair once again, “Even if they think I was a goon, is a goon not entitled to human rights?” Everyone is. And everyone is entitled to ask questions under the RTI. The only thing is relevant is what is being asked and what the answers portend.


The RTI Boomerang

Asith Sangma exposed massive corruption but he is the one battling lawsuits now

ASITH SANGMA
ASITH SANGMA

PHOTO: THOMAS LIM

MEGHALAYA

32 year old activist Asith Sangma is a harried man. He lives in Baghmara, at South Garo Hills district in Meghalaya with his wife and five children – all below the age of 15. He draws Rs 8,000 rupees a month as salary from a cultural and environmental NGO he has helped found. He has a defamation case against him for Rs 60,00,000. He has lost Rs 2,00,000 in the last two years in fighting this case. “All because I believed in the power of the RTI,” he says.

Sangma and his wife came to Baghmara, newly wed, when he was 22. He made it his home with time, but was struck by the rampant corruption he saw in development schemes that had sprung up all around the town. In 2005, he read about the RTI in the Shillong Times. He asked a friend who was with the district council how the RTI could be used and proceeded to use it in 2007. In 2008 he tasted success with RTI applications which exposed the misappropriation of funds by the local Assistant District Magistrate Santosh Marak. Most of the scam lay in the misappropriation of rice meant for food for work programmes, and in siphoning off of money meant for buying government vehicles. The Anti Corruption Bureau stepped in and filed a report on Marak, but no action was taken. The buck stopped there.

Or did it? Marak knew where to hit Sangma. His vengeance did not indict him in a criminal case or break his bones – it drained him financially.

His Rs 60,00,000 defamation case has left Sangma, who was already struggling to make ends meet on a meager salary, with little appetite for activism. “The money apart, the case kills me because of the amount of time I have to spend reporting to court,” says Sangma. All because he believed in the power of the RTI.


Chennai’s need to know

One RTI too many landed these three in a police station or two

MADHAV, ELANGO AND GOPAL
MADHAV, ELANGO AND GOPAL
TAMIL
NADU

At 11 15 am on September 1, 2010, three men, each in their thirties, stood blindfolded outside the Raj Bhavan at Chennai. They held up placards that read: “Non Transparent Appointment To Uphold Transparency?” They were protesting the appointment of former Chief Secretary K S Sripathy as Chief Information Commissioner of the state. The appointment, they believe, is unlawful, because applications from other candidates had not been invited and an approval of the selection committee (mandatory under the RTI Act) not taken. Also, Sripathy is close to Chief Minister Karunanidhi, and had as a bureaucrat blatantly opposed the implementation of the RTI Act. The three youth shouted slogans: “Save RTI”. Once. Twice. On their third shout, they were picked up by policemen, tossed into a white Tata Sumo and whisked away.

What made these three blindfolded men so dangerous to the State of Tamil Nadu? Why were they not allowed their right to peaceful protest in a public place that they had rightful access to?

One of these three was 30 year old V Madhav, an ex Infosys employee who gave up his job in 2006 to join an NGO that would help him use the RTI. In a short span of four years, Madhav has become an icon of sorts for RTI users in Tamil Nadu. His applications have made IAS and IPS officers disclose their assets. They have inspected the records of the State Secretariat, state government hospitals, the Chennai Central Prison and the Chennai Municipal Corporation. Most significantly, Madhav’s RTIs have questioned the RTI itself – ensured that charges not be levied on those seeking information and exposed that the Chief Minister’s office itself was lacking a PIO. Madhav also liaisons with the media, so that information obtained under these RTIs are available to all in the next day’s newspapers.

Another was Gopalkrishnan, a 36 year old mechanical engineer who remembers bitterly how he was refused admission into engineering colleges for two consecutive years because principals everywhere demanded a capitation fee that he was unable to pay. “My father had been a bus driver and labour unionist,” he says. “He had taught me to fight.” So Gopalkrishnan fought a court case for two long years to secure a college admission that his merit should have earned him. But he did not give up on the fight. Two and a half years ago he joined an NGO called Five Pillars which taught him how to use the RTI. The Tamil Nadu Electricity Board, the Tamil Nadu Slum Clearance Board, the Chennai Municipal Corporation – have all faced the brunt of Gopalkrishnan’s RTIs. He has forced them to address issues ranging from garbage disposal and mosquito control to road building.

The third blindfolded man was Siva Elango, 33 – a post graduate in journalism and politics, whose 60 page Tamil guidebook on the RTI was a bestseller at the last Chennai book fair – doing over 10,000 copies. The guidebook has a helpline number which Elango runs to provide step by step directions on the phone to those filing an RTI. And he writes from experience. Among others, Elango filed an application demanding the accounts of every state government department in Tamil Nadu by February. The reason? This ensured all of them had their accounts ready by the end of the financial year – in March – a rarity for lazy overconfident state bureaucracy.

No wonder these three men, each in their thirties, were tossed into that Tata Sumo without a warrant. No wonder they were taken away to Guindy Police Station and made to wait in a sub inspector’s office, then in a dark room – filled with mosquitoes and the stench of a nearby toilet. No wonder they were interrogated by policemen who posed to them poignant questions on the subject of state security, such as: “What is the colour of your underwear?”. No wonder that they were driven off then in the direction of the magistrate’s court – only to turn at the last minute and detain them at another police station instead. The Velucheri Police Station. Here Sub Inspector Laxmi Narayan tried to sweet talk them into never using the RTI again – by offering them philosophical gems like: “How can you ever eradicate corruption anyway?”

At 5 15 pm, Madhav, Gopalkrishnan and Elango were released, without being given an explanation for why they were detained in the first place. They will file an RTI for that. Even if the appeal has to go up to Sripathy.


MANSUKHBHAI PRAJAPATI
KISHORI RAM

PHOTO: SONU KISHAN

‘They dismantled it brick by brick’

When Kishori Ram asked why land meant for the poor was being used by the rich, he lost his own home

50 year old Kishori Ram rues the day he filed an RTI application. “And I rue the day I believed in the state,” he screams, crying.

Kishori Ram’s ancestral home at Matatpur, in the Bhabua district of Bihar, belonged to his family for four generations and 50 years. It had five rooms, occupied by his mother, his three siblings – and their spouses and children. “We had planned to build more rooms,” he says before breaking down again.

A two-storeyed house with twelve rooms had come up close by. This belonged to a business family headed by two brothers – Mukh Ram and Sukh Ram. Mukh Ram was once an officer with the local fire brigade. The family now ran successful auto parts and car hire businesses. They had two jeeps and three motorcycles of their own. They were well connected.

So well connected, that they had built the house they lived in on government land, meant to be allocated through the Indira Awaas Yojana to Below-Poverty-Line (BPL) families. What was worse was that the house extended even beyond this illegally allocated space, and blocked the road leading to Kishori Ram’s home, and 25 other houses in Matatpur.

His family had gotten used to this nuisance. “No one could do nothing against Mukh Ram. He had connections in the state police as well as in the local block development office,” says Kishori Ram. “But I thought otherwise.” Kishori Ram lived in Patna. He was a clerk in the state’s Labour Resources Department. Here he had seen and grown to believe in what he calls “the due process of law”.

His family home offered his wife and four sons respite when they wanted to get away from their cramped apartment. It also offered them “a connect to history, far away from the disconnect of a city”, he recalls. So he decided to fight Mukh Ram, his wealth, and his connections with a simple right that was legally made available to all of India in 2005.

On February 12 2009, Kishori Ram filed an RTI application asking why government land meant for BPL families was given to Mukh Ram who ran two prosperous businesses. Soon after Kishori Ram left for Patna, leaving only his youngest son Inder, aged 12, behind.

They came on the 21st of July, in the dead of the night, at 2 am. “There was Mukh Ram, Sukh Ram and 12 goons,” says Inder, his voice shaking even today. “They were accompanied by the Police Station in Charge (Anand Lal Mathur) and Block Development Officer (Ram Vilas Paswan).” The goons went into the house and pulled out and thrashed Kishori Ram’s brothers and brother in law. They threw the women of the household out next, dragging some of them by the hair. Then they looted the home. Sacks of grain, vessels and clothes were bundled up and taken away.

All this, before they delivered the final blow. Kishori Ram’s ancestral home was dismantled as it had been built. Systematically. Brick by brick. In front of his family’s eyes. “The police officer and BDO stood by and watched,” says Kishori Ram. “Till nothing remained.” Then his family was told to leave Matatpur and never to set foot on it again. This – that the family who questioned the legitimacy of his home would be left homeless themselves – was Mukh Ram’s idea of poetic justice. Kishori Ram learnt the hard way that “due process of law” is defined by the rich and influential.

Today, Kishori Ram’s family seeks temporary refuge in the homes of distant relatives in other villages. Kishori Ram back at his tiny Patna flat, tries to fight for their right to return. Even if they do, it will take nothing less than Rs 3,00,000—a sum they can ill afford, to build a new home. And it will not be their ancestral home. The last person in his immediate family to see that was its youngest member. Sights of this home being torn down, his family being beaten and their belongings being plundered will be Inder’s last connect with history. He too, will rue the day his father filed an RTI application.


A lawyer’s plea

Kiran was allegedly kidnapped and tortured for asking the Ferozpur Cantonment Town uncomfortable questions.

“A revolution is something that must go on,” says Kiran Pandey—Words that resonate in the context of his difficult circumstances. The 31 year old son of an electrician in the Military Engineering Service was in the 8th standard when he wrote a letter in Hindi asking authorities to clear garbage from in front of his house. Nothing came of his petition and there was no way for him to find out why. Years later, in 2005 when the RTI Act was passed, Pande found the tool he had been looking for back then.

Ferozepur in Punjab is a small cantonment town that is referred to as ‘Honeymoon Station’, Pandey informs us. Administrators enjoy their posting to the fullest and leave. The town languishes, lacking basic civic amenities and development. Between August 2007 and January 2009, Pande claims to have filed 90 RTI applications to the Cantonment Board to seek clarifications on how funds had been utilized by them. The board only replied to 30 of them with obscure and insufficient information. Pande kept filing appeals to the Central Information Commission and waiting for them to come up for hearing for two years. Meanwhile he had been getting threats, allegedly from members of the board to stop his activism. He notified every institution he could think of – from the DIG and District Commissioner to the High Court and Sessions Court. Despite his pleas, on the 12th of July he was kidnapped from a temple on the outskirts of the town. For a week after that Pande was tortured brutally. He was attacked by knives everyday and starved of food and water. With 37 odd slashes on his body, the heat became all the more unbearable. Pande claims he had no hope of coming out alive at all. Meanwhile the Bar Council went on strike to protest one of their colleagues going missing. The local media picked up the news and with Legislative elections around the corner, pressure began to build up on the government. Finally, unconscious and severely injured, he was left on the road outside the police station. Despite pressure from civil society, all that the police did was register an FIR for kidnapping.

His kidnappers are on the loose, the scars on his body have not healed and his back still hurts from the beatings he got. In January this year unknown goons demolished his chamber in the District Court complex as well. With his source of income affected, Pande finds it increasingly hard to support his paralysed father, aging mother and young sister. But he intends to carry on filing more applications and FIR’s against corrupt officials. He sounds resolute, even manic at times. “ Whenever I find my confidence wavering I go to Bhagat Singh’s Samadhi. It is only 7 kms away”, he says. “Trust me you can feel his presence there.” His assertion takes you back to a time when revolution was religion in Punjab. There is just no other way to explain such grit.


The activist’s environment

Ramesh was slapped with criminal charges for taking on corporate giants.

It is said that most RTI activist who have been harassed are loners. Not Ramesh Agrawal of Jan Chetna – a group of activists who keep in touch with each other so they are not alone in their fight against the powerful. Agrawal, now 55, has been involved with activism since his college days. He has close working relationships with names of national importance – like Medha Patkar. One would imagine that these ties, coupled with his stellar reputation as a social worker, afford him some protection – no matter who his RTI applications riled.

Agrawal imagined this too. He earns his living from a computer hardware shop he runs with his two sons, but has been involved in activism and social work from his college days. He gradually decided to specialize in environmental activism, but his true calling lay in defying corporate land grabs. In 2006, for instance, he took on corporate giant Jindal Steel & Power Ltd because it had procured agricultural land for a factory near Raipur without the consent of the villagers in the area – which they were required to take by law. He obtained this information through the RTI. Then he filed an application to enquire as to why the Chattisgarh Ministry of Environment and Forests didn’t update their latest projects on their website. He would go on to file many such RTI applications against many such giants. “I would be offered bribes, then threatened when I refused them,” says Agrawal. “But noone actually did anything.”

Till last year, when he filed an RTI enquiring about a 2400 MW Jindal Thermal Power Plant 50 km away from Raigarh. The private project had been set up on Chattisgarh Municipal Development Corporation land – with neither lease nor a transfer of ownership. “The concerned ministry cancelled this project, on my filing the RTI,” says Agrawal excitedly. Then the excitement in his voice fades away. For immediately after this cancellation police cases for blackmail and defamation were registered against Agrawal. As they were about to arrest him and throw him into a lock-up, members of Jan Chetna intervened – and bail was granted.

Agrawal’s wife and three children – all in their twenties – were “shocked when the police came to arrest me”. They are equally shocked that the charges against him – which lack evidence – haven’t been dropped, and the case is ongoing. “I have to keep going to court for this,” he says. “And every time I go my wife and children remember that day when the police came knocking.” They suddenly feel very alone.


The trapped patient

Davinder, an ageing cancer patient, was charged with assault for exposing a ration scam.

Davinder Khurana, a 60 year old cancer patient, resides at Sarabha Nagar at Ludhiana. He lives with his wife and two daughters. Khurana had a glass scrap business which would pay him Rs 15 to 20,000 a month. But that was when he didn’t have cancer. His cancer treatment at Mumbai’s Tata Memorial Centre has taken away muscle from his left jaw and chest – and severely impaired the functioning of his left hand. It has also taken away his earning.

Sarabha Nagar is a posh colony where few, if any use ration cards. But Khurana, due to his compromised circumstances had to do so. Yet, when he went to the ration depot in his locality and applied for one it was denied to him. So he filed an RTI application. This led to the discovery that government rations in posh Sarabhanagar were being shown as taken – and then siphoned off to be sold in the black market. On August 6 Information Commissioner P K Verma asked the DGP Punjab to institute an enquiry into Khurana’s allegations.

On the very same day a criminal case was launched against Khurana and he was arrested. He was granted bail on the same day, but the allegations against him are strange. He is accused of beating up the same ration depot owner who refused him a ration card with a lathi. “This is impossible,” says Khurana. “Because my left hand doesn’t even function.” His lawyer has pleaded likewise. Khurana’s cancer, that got him into this spot in the first place, is his only alibi for getting out of it. But as he calls us regularly, crying about continued police harassment, his spirit to fight—both the system and his cancer is giving way.


The tireless crusader

Saleem has been jailed and threatened for his wide-ranging activism.

Saleem Baig was 28 years old, in 2000, when unrest erupted in his small town of Bhojpur in Moradabad. The police had allegedly desecrated the Quran in a religious leader’s house while interrogating him. Tension was mounting—communal violence was imminent. Baig joined the protesters asking for action against the police, but amidst the chaos he had a simple epiphany—whatever is to be done he must do himself. Allowing this thought to lead his way, Baig traveled to Allahabad and filed a PIL in the matter. This is the first time he saw the inside of a court of law—a place that was to become a second home to him in the years to come. In 2001 Baig set up an NGO with a small group of friends to look into matters of development and injustice locally. He was fuelled solely by the passions of youth. It was not until 2005 that he would find a real weapon to pursue his causes. The introduction of the RTI Act was the biggest turning point in his activism. “More than 80% of my work that was stuck went ahead because of the RTI. Before that all we could do was protest. There was no way to hold anyone accountable,” he says. Baig has since filed over 3500 applications in various matters. In 2007 he asked for information to expose the communal and caste bias in the appointments made in the police force. On refusal, he took the matter to the State Information Commission which penalized the SSP for Rs 25000 and asked the ASP to pay Rs 6000 to Baig as compensation for harassment. Immediately after, Baig was charged with two separate cases of criminal intimidation and assault. He went into hiding and put together evidence proving he was innocent.

The High Court quashed both FIR’s, but the police reopened the investigation and put him in jail for 19 days. The Jailor told him he had orders to put him through severe mental and physical humiliation. While in custody the SSP threatened him saying that as a Muslim he ought to be even more careful. “He said he was Behenji ki naak ka baal (very close to Mayawati) and that they would slap so many cases on me I would not see the outside world again.” True to their word, Baig found out as soon as he was released on bail, that a new warrant had been issued in his name—this time by the CMO, alleging his hobby of studying Ayurvedic medicine was a covert unlicensed practice of allopathic medicine. Baig had filed various RTI applications against this CMO to reveal corruption and ill administration in the Medical Council. All his wife’s jewelry had by now been sold and the family was practically penniless. Baig’s young children had to be taken out of school and he went into hiding again. In Delhi, he got in touch with several Human Rights organizations who were familiar with his work and due to their efforts along with support from the media, Baig managed to slowly get back to normal life. But normal life for Baig is RTI activism and he has now resumed that in full measure.

The cases against him continue to tax his life. He is currently working on about 250 applications that will reveal how funds meant for the welfare and development of Muslims in the state are being mismanaged and misappropriated by various authorities including certain Madarsas. He has received severe threats by concerned parties in the case, but plans to continue undaunted. On the 18th of September— on Minority Rights Day, he is organizing a rally in Lucknow to protest against the state of minorities. Ask him if he is skeptical about taking on a religiously sensitive matter or afraid for his future, and Baig answers with a straight no, moving on swiftly to tell us about the various issues he plans to pursue—imploring us to look into them as well. “To work for humanitarian reasons is the will of Allah,” he signs off. And in this pursuit the RTI Act is no less than a scripture to him. One that is being desecrated today like the Quran that brought him to the path of activism ten years ago.


Struggle and the man

Akhilesh was crushed under a gypsy for ruffling the authorities’ feathers.

Akhilesh Saxena, now 52, was 12 when he was about to audition for a radio programme at Lucknow. It was his first audition, and he had chosen a fiery nationalistic speech to recite. Waiting at the studio for someone to call out his name, he thumbed through a copy of the Hindi magazine, Dharmyug, that was just out. He read, for the fifth time, a short story published in it – based around the independence struggle, and written by his mother. He read, for the fifteenth time, a line in that story: “Sangharsh Ke Path Pe Chalte Raho. Ye Desh Tumhaara Hai (Don’t give up this struggle. This country belongs to you).” “I remember that line written by my mother,” he says today. “I don’t remember the story clearly, nor the characters. But that line sustains me.” It sustained him when he was 21, and jailed for one and half months near Simla for protesting against the emergency. It sustained him when he was retrenched from his temporary job at Doordarshan in 2001, because he was part of a movement for the free and fair regularization of it’s employees: “6500 people around the country were employed permanently because they paid a fixed bribe of one and a half lakh rupees. The rest, who protested against this, were kicked out.”

Saxena’s mother was a journalist and author brought up on, and driven by, what she called the “ideals of democracy”. “She believed democracy stood upon simple things,” he says. “Never give a bribe, always protest, always ask questions.” He was done with not bribing and protesting. When the RTI movement came about in UP around 2002, he started asking questions. And the line from the short story continued to sustain him. It sustained him in May, 2007, when a DCM Toyota nearly ran him over near Gol Market, Lucknow, for an RTI he had filed to find out whether 180 builders authorized by the Lucknow Development Authority had followed fire safety norms in their construction projects. And at the Lucknow University campus, later the same year in December, when some goons poured petrol all over his scooter, because of an RTI he had filed to find out whether the Deputy Registrar at the university was complying with the rules of the All India Council Of Technical Education (AICTE): “Luckily I arrived in time, and they fled without setting it on fire.”

Saxena was not so lucky in 2008, when he went all out to help Salim Beg, another often-harassed RTI activist from Moradabad with his RTI application: “He called a Lucknow RTI helpline that I volunteer for. And I advised him on what to do, did his paperwork, and went with him to every office and hearing.” As a result of their efforts Saurav Kushar, SP Moradabad, had to pay a fine of Rs 25,000 out of his salary as penalty. As compensation for his harassment, Beg was paid Rs 10,000 by the UP Police. Saxena accompanied Beg when he went to pick up this compensation as well – from the Lucknow Information Commission office on August 11,2008. Then Saxena and Beg parted ways. Saxena remembers seeing a white gypsy parked outside the office compound as he was leaving. “A uniformed police officer sat next to the driver,” he remembers. “He nudged the driver when he saw me coming out.” The number plates of the gypsy were covered. Saxena mounted his scooter – that has survived almost as many attacks as him – and drove off. He forgot about the gypsy as he climbed the flyover near Lucknow University. He felt happy about Beg. Rs 10,000 could go some distance, if stretched. Saxena’s own income – from private tuitions and some freelance journalism – was Rs 4000 per month. Perhaps, if he was re-instated in his Doordarshan job – the 2001 case is yet to be decided – he could earn more. Then he and his wife and 10 year old son could move out of that one and a half room flat they were renting.A jolt shook Saxena out of his reverie. He remembers flying into the sky, and seeing the concrete on the road – all in less than a second – before blacking out. When he came to, a crowd was carrying him to the hospital. “They said a white gypsy with covered number plates had hit me from behind and driven off,” he says. “But I had no enmity with the police.” Then I remembered two names – Beg, and Kushar.” Then he blacked out again. Saxena suffered three broken ribs, a wrist fracture, and a near fatal injury to his head. His associates at the Youth Initiative – an association of over 3000 professionals who file RTIs and encourage youth in rural areas to do so – called Kushar. “He said it was very sad that this had happened. He had no idea why. But he would be careful that it doesn’t recur,” says Saxena. “Maybe, he felt the score was settled.” Was it? Saxena still hears a humming in his head because of the head injury. He still earns Rs 4000 per month, because his 2001 retrenchment case is pending. So he still lives in a one and a half room flat with his family. His wife asked him to ease off RTI applications after this incident, but he hasn’t. He has most recently received threat calls because of an RTI he had filed in January 2009 asking how many sugar factories along the Gomti river have installed the effluent treatment plants that they are required to install by law. Those threatening Saxena also want him to ease off RTI applications. But they lack information. They don’t know about that line his mother wrote 40 years ago.


Why the whistle may not blow

New legislation to address some RTI Act lacunae is full of dodgy clauses

Why the whistle
may not blow

The Public Interest Disclosure and Protection To Persons Making The Disclosure Bill, 2010 will be tabled in the next session of Parliament. The Bill has been dogged by delays. Had it been passed already, it could have saved the life of Murugan- a civil supplies department official in Tuticorin, Tamil Nadu. He exposed a scam about pulses being smuggled out of godowns to be replaced bu chep rice. He dies of poisoning on the 7th of Septmeber. His wife, who went on dharna for 12 days to demand justice, was jailed. Now that it is finally in public domain on its way to realization, experts find that it still does not spell good news for RTI Activists. Some of its key problems are listed below.

• Technically the Bill covers whistleblowers outside the government but its thrust is towards the protection of those within it.
• The definition of what qualifies as ‘disclosure’ (in s. 2(d)) is problematic. It requires the complainant to demonstrate loss to the government or gain to the public servant as a result of the act in question. This might not cover acts of pure injustice to people.
• It excludes the armed forces and police entirely. Given that they are most susceptible to corruption, this makes little sense.
• It requires that the complaint be made within 5 years of the occurrence of an act. Again, an unnecessary restriction.
• S. 7(1), which lists what is excluded from the scope of disclosures, is extremely limiting. Particularly because it stipulates that the HOD/Secretary of the department complained against can certify any matter as excluded.
• The recommendations that the CVC makes after investigating a complaint are not binding in any way. Whistleblowers will be reluctant to risk their lives in making disclosures that are not likely to yield results.
• S. 16 provides monetary penalty and a maximum imprisonment of 2 years for a whistleblower if his disclosure is found to be mala fide. This can be misused against complainants and will discourage them.
• The Bill does not do enough to protect the identity of whistleblowers.

Originally published in Tehelka magazine, 2010.