Millennium Post

Turning opaque

When Prime Minister Narendra Modi had his chance to interact face-to-face with the RTI activists from across the country at the inaugural session of 10th National RTI Convention, he faced boycott of eminent RTI activists like Aruna Roy among others. Roy was moving force behind the passage of RTI law. The boycott of the Prime Minister at the convention needs a look as Modi had come to power in 2014 with the promise of making the RTI Act more transparent.

While leading RTI activists like Aruna Roy, Subhash Chandra Agarwal and Rakesh Dubudu among others boycotted PM’s programme citing the reason that the some of the regular members of the RTI convention were not invited for the function on ‘security’ concerns. Was it the ‘security’ concern or something else?

Among those who were not invited due to ‘security’ reasons, also included VV Rao, a regular invitee of the convention and active RTI worker for the last 10 years. Rao, while talking to Millennium Post said, “We were restrained from being a part of the function not due to ‘security’ reasons but just because we would have dared PM with questions as to why government was killing the RTI’s objectivity. The government has slashed the funds meant to train RTI volunteers. In most of the cases, officials provide misleading information.” The RTI has completed its 10th year on October 12.

Though, Modi had said that the foundation of democracy is that even the most ordinary citizen has the right to question the government, activists raise doubts over the intentions of the government. “If he really wishes to make RTI as a right to question government and the tool to make the government learn from the RTI applications, and reform the system based on the queries, then why doesn’t Modiji initiates move to bring political parties under the RTI ambit. If he makes a move in this regard, it will be a great honour to those RTI activists who have been murdered for exposing politicians,” said Rao, the convenor of Hyderabad-based Social Audit Council for Information & Rights.

Agreeing with Rao, coordinator, Access to Information Programme, Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI) Venkatesh Nayak said, “Without a doubt, it is a major achievement that the RTI Act has completed 10 years of implementation unmolested, in the face of growing opposition from major stakeholders,” and added, “With a few notable exceptions, the bureaucracy in general looks upon the RTI Act as a major headache that takes time away from their “official” duties”.

“Filing RTI is not as easy as it seems to be. Several activists have been killed for seeking information on people-centric welfare scheme such as public distribution system, MNREGA, Indira Awas, etc. With activists getting murdered and provisions being amended, seeking ‘right’ information is still an uphill struggle against the corrupt system,” said Ashish Singh, RTI activist and the convenor of Mid Day Meal Rasoiya Sangh. He added that though RTI, in its 10 years, has empowered the citizen at even village level, the incidents of attacks on RTI workers have also increased manifold.

Since 2005, the pursuit for information through the RTI Act claimed several lives, including those of Bhopal-based Shehla Masood, Satish Shetty, Amit Jethava, Kameshwar Yadav, Jawahar Lal Tiwary, Guru Prasad and many more. According to statistics released by CHRI, in the past 10 years, 49 people have been killed and 260 have been assaulted for their RTI activism. Putting forth his point on the issue, Delhi-based RTI activist Gopal Prasad said, “The attacks would not deter the spirit of seeking information and making public the wrong-doings of the government. The RTI is the right given to us by the government only to make every move of their transparent.”

“We are not doing anything wrong, so why should be scared of filing RTIs. Since the government is elected by people and no one have given them the right to do frauds. We will keep the fight against corruption on,” Prasad, who was beaten at Satyavati College in Delhi for filing RTI to seek information on works in the college. It was after Prasad’s RTI that policemen deployed to guard President Pranab Mukherjee was removed after it came to notice that corrupt cops were guarding the President.

In this year itself, three murders and four cases of assault on RTI activists have been reported. When the Act was passed by the government, it was considered to be a landmark decision. The citizen was made powerful through the Act, but also vulnerable, identifiable and dispensable. Concerns regarding the safety of RTI activists culminated in the formation of the Whistle Blower’s Protection Act (WBA) in 2011. However, reports of assault and murder make it clear that the lives of RTI activists continue to be threatened by those who do not want to be held accountable for corruption. However, despite the high risks involved, the number of RTI applications is increasing with each passing year. According to Nayak, around 40 lakh such RTI requests may have been made to various public authorities across the country during the year in 2011-2012 alone and such applications might increase to as high as 52 lakh this year.

Recently, the National Crime Records Bureau added a new category to collect data across the country on attacks on RTI activists. However, the data collection template has many loopholes. It will record information of only those cases which involve “grevious hurt of varying degrees”.

On major challenges to seek information using RTI, Nayak said, “Non-compliance with the statutory requirements of proactive and routine disclosure of information about the actions of Government under Section 4 of the RTI Act has been and will be a major challenge unless resolute action is taken to implement them.”

Rejecting that RTI has lost its steam and becoming a tool of blackmailing Nayak said, “A person may be blackmailed by holding some secret information about his or her wrongdoing as a trump card. The best way to end blackmail is to publicise the information as widely as possible. Blackmail is possible only when a matter remains known to two persons and none other. Once it becomes public, there is no scope for any blackmail.” Advocating for bringing political parties under the RTI ambit, he said, “Transparency of parliamentary parties is not simply about the manner of spending of MPLADS or MLALADS funds by their representatives in constituencies. That is no doubt important, but the people must also have access to information about the inner workings of these parties.”

Replying to a question as which government appeared more averse to RTI – the ousted UPA government or present Modi regime, noted RTI activist Subhash Chandra Agrawal said, “It’s sad for the democracy that most people in power dislike transparency, whether it is the Congress, the BJP, the DMK or the AAP.”

Agrawal further added that states and competent authorities do not care for DoPT circulars. “In most of the cases states dismiss the appeals filed without fee which is violation of RTI act. So centre should ask states to follow DoPT rules in this regard desiring fresh disposal of the said first appeal by its General administration Department.” Agrawal, who had filed above 6,000 RTI applicationss, said that number of RTI petitions can be reduced drastically if public-authorities make sue-motto disclosure as is even mandatory under section 4(1) of RTI Act. There is utmost need to make government machineries more accountable and reply the queries with best available information. There are several complaints of RTI applications for accessing information such as Cabinet Notes relating to important legislations – Land Acquisition Act and foreign tour reports of the Prime Minister – being turned down on grounds of confidentiality.

“The Finance Ministry has not even bothered to respond to a request as to why the proactive disclosure of monthly disbursal of public funds to various states under various heads has been discontinued since April 2015. The NDA government’s leading member, BJP must make good on its electoral promise of enhanced transparency in public administration,” Nayak said. 

Notably, it is claimed that RTI Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS), which was founded in 1987 by Aruna Roy and Nikhil Dey, was one of the very first campaigners for such a concept and it’s the outcome of the peasants’ movement in Rajasthan.

Venkatesh Nayak, Coordinator, Access to  formation Programme at CHRI - With a few notable exceptions, the bureaucracy in general looks upon the RTI Act as a major headache that takes time away from their “official” duties.

Subhash Chandra Agrawal, Noted RTI activist - It’s sad for the democracy that most people in power dislike transparency, whether it is the Congress, the BJP, the DMK or the AAP.

Attacks on RTI activists
November 5, 2011: Nadeem Saiyed of Ahmedabad was killed. Saiyed had filed above 40 RTIs with Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation  between 2006 and 2009, seeking information on illegal cow slaughter and beef trade in Gujarat. He was also a key witness to the Naroda Patiya massacre during the 2002 Gujarat riots. 

August 16, 2011: Bhopal-based Shehla Masood was shot at point blank range in broad daylight as she was getting into her car. Masood had raised issues related to wildlife and forest conservation, against collusion between officials on trading of animal skins and had filed RTIs asking details about Narmada Samagraha, an NGO backed by a BJP Rajya Sabha MP. 

March 2, 2011: Niyamat Ansari, a NREGA activist, was beaten to death in Latehar (Jharkhand) for exposing corruption in the NREGA.Three persons, including BDO Kailash Sahu were arrested for defalcation of funds.

August 27, 2010: RTI activist Ramdas Ghadegavkar (43 years) was killed allegedly for exposing corruption in PDS and sand mafia in Nanded, Maharashtra.

July 25, 2010: Babbu Singh, a UP Police home guard, was killed allegedly for seeking information about government funds and work done by his village pradhan at Katghar village in Bahraich district.

July 20, 2010: Amit Jethwa, RTI and environment activist, was shot dead near the Gujarat High Court. 

May 22, 2010: Dattatray Patil was killed allegedly for exposing various malpractices and siphoning off public funds at Ichalkaranji in Kolhapur district, Maharashtra.

April 20, 2010: RTI activist Vitthal Gite was killed allegedly for exposing irregularities in a school at Waghbet village in Beed district, Maharashtra.

April 11, 2010: Sola Ranga Rao was killed allegedly for seeking information about fund meant for a pipeline at Sitarampuram village in Krishna district of Andhra Pradesh.

February 26, 2010: Arun Sawant was killed allegedly for fighting administrative corruption in Thane in Maharashtra.

February 14, 2010: Shashidhar Mishra was killed for exposing several scams in welfare schemes at Phulwaria village in Begusarai district, Bihar.

February 11, 2010: Vishram Laxman Dodiya of Ahmedabad was murdered after meeting officials of Torrent Power Company. 

January 13, 2010: Satish Shetty, who exposed many land scams at Talegaon Dabhade, was killed near Pune, Maharashtra.
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