Sunday, March 06, 2011

Dangerous to know: India's Right to Information Act

Dangerous to know: India's Right to Information Act by Rupan Jain Nair

Soon after he exposed how bricks were bought for six times their value for roads that were never built in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, Amarnath Pandey was shot near his home.

The bullet, which he believes was fired by contractors who were benefiting from the brick scam, clipped his ear and grazed his skull, leaving him in hospital for weeks.

Pandey, 56, a doctor from Robertsganj, a sleepy city 400 miles (640 kilometres) from New Delhi, has been fighting for better civic amenities in the area for more than two decades.

He used India's new Right to Information (RTI) Act, passed in 2005, to find out why roads were not being constructed despite funds allocated by the government -- and the facts he discovered nearly cost him his life.

"I found that 100 bricks that costs 400 rupees (eight dollars) were shown to be purchased at 2,400 rupees. Money was conveniently being siphoned off and roads were never built," Pandey told AFP.

"The contractors involved in the wrongdoing resisted my efforts and decided to kill me," he said after undergoing surgery for his gunshot wounds.

No one has yet been arrested over the attack in January.

Pandey refuses to be put off and is determined to unearth other corruption scams using RTI, a law introduced to promote accountability and good government through giving open access to official data.

It was hailed as a major breakthrough for India's bureaucratic and graft-ridden public service culture, but few people foresaw the violence that the RTI act would unleash.

At least 11 people were killed, or died in unexplained circumstances, last year after exposing corruption in public utilities, mining, food distribution and unauthorised water and electricity hookups, according to RTI activist groups in New Delhi.

In July 2010, environment activist Amit Jethwa, from the western state of Gujarat, was shot dead by two men on a motorbike outside a court.

Jethwa, 35, had been using the RTI act for two years to fight against illegal mines operating inside the Gir lion sanctuary, the only natural habitat of the endangered Asiatic lions.

"My son dared to ask questions and his fate was sealed by two bullets," Jethwa's father Bhiku Batawala told AFP.

Hundreds of other whistleblowers have been attacked, threatened or harassed for pursuing similar crusades, said Manish Sisodia of Kabir, a voluntary organisation who has been spreading awareness about RTI to encourage its use.

The organisation has initiated a "RTI-brotherhood" campaign to provide safety to whistleblowers.

In the latest case, the daughter-in-law of a man who exposed a pension scam in Haryana state was allegedly murdered by a village council head whose role in the corruption had been exposed.

"Mahabir Singh along with his friends had filed RTI to expose the district-wide misappropriation of funds carried out by the village head Dharamvir Malik," the Times of India reported on February 14.

"Malik and his associates retaliated by beating up Singh and running their vehicle over his 25-year-old daughter-in-law, Sonu, who later died in the hospital."

Last September, justice minister Veerappa Moily called murdered RTI activists "martyrs" and said action was needed to protect those who exposed wrong-doing.

The government now plans to propose the new law in the current parliamentary session, but RTI activists say delays in the police's response would still provide ample opportunity for any "vested interest" to plot their revenge.

The Bihar Human Rights Commission, a government body working in the eastern state of Bihar released a report last year on harassment of people who made RTI requests and asked the government to suspend 54 guilty officers.

The commission said no action had been taken over the misconduct in Bihar, one of the most underdeveloped states in India.

Sumankant Raichaudhari, a teacher in Bihar's capital city, Patna, says he has filed 150 applications to find out more about money budgeted for government schools and whether it was all being used on students.

The authorities reacted by trying to bribe him and, when that failed, they threatened to kidnap his teenage daughter, he said.

"I filed a police complaint against the two government officers but no one has been arrested," Raichaudhari told AFP.

Mumbai-based Sumaira Abdulali, who founded the Movement against Intimidation, Threats and Revenge against Activists, has been attacked twice for exposing a multi-million-dollar sand mining scam allegedly involving politicians, civil servants and police.

"I fought to expose how our government is infected with corruption and greed and now I fight to save my life," said Abdulali, who had filed a court case against her attackers in 2004.

Abdulali says she is not optimistic the new "whistleblowers" bill would help.

"A few determined people will continue their fight, some will be killed in the process but I worry about the day when people will give up this challenge of cleaning up the system."

Indian activist Amit Jethwa poses at an undisclosed location in the western Indian state of Gujarat. Photo courtesy: AFP

1 comment:

Sandy Shaw said...

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