Indians Seek Transparency Amid FearThe Wall Street Journal By KRISHNA POKHAREL
Violent Incidents Have Increased Against Citizens Making Use of the 2005 Right to Information Act; Pursuing a Remedy
Amit Jethava bombarded officials in the western Indian state of Gujarat for five years with requests for information about the Asiatic lions, spotted deer and wild boar in a nature reserve near his village and the mining activity nearby that was a danger to the wildlife.
In May, Mr. Jethava petitioned the High Court of Gujarat to order the federal and state governments to put a stop to the illegal mining. In July, as he was leaving a meeting with his lawyers in the city of Ahmedabad, he was shot to death. Four men have been arrested in connection with his death, which Ahmedabad police say was in retaliation for his activism.
Atul Loke/Panos for The Wall Street Journal
Amit Jethava's widow, Alpa
The Power of Right to Information
Atul Loke/Panos for The Wall Street Journal
Gangaben, from Tatania village in the Amreli district in Gujarat, used the RTI act to get a free house, which was sanctioned under the Below- Poverty-Line scheme.
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India's Right to Information Act—a groundbreaking piece of legislation in a nation that struggles with corruption and stifling bureaucracy—allows citizens to request information or data from any government entity except the paramilitary and intelligence departments. Since 2005, when the law was passed, more than one million requests have been filed for information on everything from teacher attendance to money spent on village roads to the age of electronic voting machines.
As the number of ordinary Indians using the law has grown, the number of violent incidents targeting those exercising their "right to information," known as RTI, has escalated, government officials say, threatening to damp voter confidence in one of the signature reforms of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's government.
"The number of murders has been mounting and that's a cause for grave concern," says Wajahat Habibullah, India's chief information commissioner. "A remedy has to be found." Parliament is expected to vote later this year on a bill to protect whistleblowers.
Eight individuals seeking information under the law have been killed this year, activists say. Local police are still investigating the deaths. Activists and the families of those killed say there is a clear connection between the killings and the issues the victims were probing. People have been targeted, they say, for uncovering shady deals and illegal activity by politicians, bureaucrats, companies and organized-crime figures. Nonlethal attacks, threats and harassment also are increasing, activists say.
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Many ordinary Indians have successfully used information from RTI requests to force improvements to problems such as bad tap water and irregularities in public distribution systems, which allow poor families to buy essential commodities at low prices at special government-run stores. Such vigilance has increased the government's responsiveness to common concerns, say many officials and citizens who have used the law.
While various states have RTI activist groups, there is no formal national organization. Most activists are volunteers.
Krishnaraj Rao, a Mumbai-based publishing executive, has joined an informal national group to lobby for the protection of RTI activists. He says at least 12 have been attacked this year in addition to those killed. Activists are afraid to go to the police because in many cases, "local police are way too cozy with the vested interests. The chances are they won't protect the activists but instead expose them," he says.
"Fear diminishes when you seek and find the truth," says Shivaji Raut, a science teacher who has filed more than 180 information requests with the western state of Maharashtra, mainly involving government subsidies to wind power companies. "But you cannot find the truth when the fear for your life ... is so strong."
Mr. Raut says a state government minister, a local businessman and a local bureaucrat all warned him to stop his requests. Last October, someone threw stones at his house, breaking a window.
"Up to that date, there was no fear in my mind," he says. But since then, he has stopped going for his regular morning and evening walks.
Dattatray Patil, a 47-year-old sugarcane farmer in the Kolhapur district, south of Mumbai, used the law to get information about land sold in his town. Mr. Patil discovered that a land dealer had falsely claimed ownership of a piece of land, and filed a complaint. The dealer was convicted of fraud and served a short jail sentence last year.
One evening in May, Mr. Patil, who had received calls demanding that he stop meddling, was beaten to death by eight men at his farm, according to local police.
"He just wanted to have a corruption-free country," said Kshamanand Patil, Mr. Patil's elder brother.
Police arrested the land dealer and eight other men and charged them with murder. The dealer offered money and a new car to each of the eight in exchange for killing Mr. Patil, says Prakash Gaikwad, the police officer investigating Mr. Patil's death.
A lawyer for the land dealer and the eight men says his clients deny the charge. He calls the case police "imagination," and notes that police don't have eyewitnesses to the crime.
All nine men remain in custody.
Atul loke/Panos for The Wall Street Journal
Amit Jethava's children comfort their mother, Alpa, in August after their father was killed, allegedly in retaliation for his right-to-know activism.
Mr. Jethava, who brought the case against illegal mining in Gujarat, was a 34-year-old trained pharmacist who left a government job seven years ago to start the Gir Nature Youth Club, a group promoting the protection of wildlife in the Gir forest reserve, the world's last habitat for Asiatic lions.
L.M. Kandoriya, a public information officer at Gujarat's forest department, says Mr. Jethava submitted queries on everything from the health of lions on the reserve to what the government was doing to protect them from disease.
Through one such query, in April, Mr. Jethava found out that there were more than 50 unauthorized limestone mines near the border of the preserve. The government doesn't allow mining near protected forests because it blocks the movement of wild animals and because animals can fall into open mines.
In May, Mr. Jethava filed his petition with the court, using the information he obtained to argue for intervention to stop the mining.
"He was telling people the truth," says Mr. Kandoriya.
On the evening of July 20, Mr. Jethava was shot dead.
On Tuesday, police in Ahmedabad arrested one mine owner's nephew while he was trying to board a flight from a local airport. Himanshu Shukla, the police officer investigating the case, said the nephew, Shiva Solanki, allegedly received the help of a local police constable in killing Mr. Jethava in retaliation for threatening the mining business.
The constable and two other men from the area whom police allege helped carry out the killing are already in custody, and police are searching for two other men for their alleged involvement in the killing. Mr. Shukla said the police also are investigating the possible role of Mr. Solanki's uncle, Dinubhai Boghabhai Solanki, the mine owner and a member of Parliament, in Mr. Jethava's murder.