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RTI whistleblowers under attack

Two Right to Information activists in Gujarat and Maharashtra had striking similarities. Both were fighting to expose corruption and both of them were murdered earlier this year despite having alerted the police about their lives were in danger.

delhi Updated: Jul 25, 2010 17:19 IST
Nagendar Sharma

Two Right to Information (RTI) activists in Gujarat and Maharashtra had striking similarities. Both were fighting to expose corruption and both of them were murdered earlier this year despite having alerted the police about their lives were in danger.

Vishram Laxman Dodiya and Satish Shetty are among the eight whistleblowers who have lost their lives in 2010. The latest victim was the 33 year-old RTI activist, Amit Jethwa, shot dead outside the Gujarat High Court, Ahmedabad, on July 20.

Though the case of Jethwa has received widespread media attention, it has come to light that there have been 20 serious attacks on RTI activists across the country during the first seven months of this year alone. (We take a look at the lesser reported cases.)

The latest attacks have exposed the dangerous aspect of India's landmark transparency law, in less than five years since came into existence in October 2005.

Initially, the citizens and activists faced problems in obtaining information from the government departments in states and at the Centre.

The inconvenient information, which the bureaucracy and the political class wanted to be kept behind iron curtains, has finally started coming out. This, however, has led to a dangerous nexus between corrupt officials, politicians and the mafia, in a bid to stifle the voices of whistleblowers.

The national transparency watchdog, the Central Information Commission (CIC), has admitted that the situation was a cause for concern.

"The effect of RTI is surely visible. Those who don't want the information to come out are obviously resorting to very dangerous means. All of us should put out heads together to find a solution. Those seeking information under RTI can't be hounded," said the CIC chief, Wajahat Habibullah.

Surat-based small shopkeeper, Dodiya (50) lost his life on February 11 following his refusal to withdraw his RTI application seeking information on illegal electricity connections in the city.

Pune-based noted RTI activist, Shetty (38), refused to give up exposing land scams using RTI, despite repeated warnings to his family. He was murdered on January 13.

Activists in Surat recall that Dodiya was a poor man, with no formal education, who sold newspapers and books on a street pavement since many decades, but was widely respected for his habit of helping others.

"He sought information from a private power company, local corporation and the police about the illegal electricity connections in the city," said Deepak Patel of the Surat RTI forum.

He was asked to withdraw the RTI application, since these connections were allegedly for industrial units and illegal liquor manufacturing units, Patel said.

"On the day of his murder, Dodiya was called to the police station in the morning, and officials tried to persuade him to withdraw the RTI application throughout the day. On his refusal, he was shot dead on way back home that evening," his son said.

His family has alleged that Dodiya had informed top police officials of the city about the repeated threats to his life, but no protection was provided.

Shetty, who exposed many land scams in Maharashtra, was killed when he was on a morning walk.

A respected whistleblower, he shot into limelight after he exposed certain corrupt land deals in and around the country's first expressway, the Mumbai—Pune expressway, over a decade ago.

"He quit his studies after class X, since our family was passing through a bad time financially. It was the police harassment of our family, particularly the torture of our younger brother, which turned Satish into a social worker," Sandeep, his younger brother, stated in an e-mail sent to HT.

"RTI came as a big boost for Satish. The case that cost his life was about 1,800 acres of land having been acquired by a company through fraudulent means, and he was getting explosive information from the government records," said Sandeep, whom Satish ensured became an engineer.

Shetty, like Dodiya, had informed the police officials about the danger to his life.

"Satish was aware that he could be attacked or killed, he filed an application for protection with SP rural Pune police, but the protection was never given," said his brother.

(To be continued tomorrow)