Vulnerable RTI warriors likely to face more threats as govt proposes new rules
“If the information you are seeking, can seriously harm someone, he will definitely harm you,” says Dr Anand Rai, Right to Information (RTI) activist and Vyapam whistleblower.
Dr Rai claims he has filed more than a 1,000 RTI applications after the RTI Act came into being in 2005. But now, he and his ilk are a worried lot.
Their worries stem from a set of Draft Rules issued by the Department of Personnel and Training (DoPT) in April. One of the biggest causes of concern is Draft Rule 12 which states, “The proceedings pending before the Commission shall abate on the death of the appellant.” The draft rules also have a provision that allows for the withdrawal of appeals based on a written communication by the appellant.
“Around 40 to 60 lakh RTI applications are filed yearly in India and a large percentage of these are by the poor and marginalized. Such provisions will provide a perverse incentive to vested interests to silence the information seeker through coercion or physical harm,”says Anjali Bhardwaj of the National Campaign for Peoples’ Right to Information (NCPRI).
Venkatesh Nayak of CHRI says the Draft Rule 12 is very dangerous as it can be misused to threaten information seekers from not pursuing their cases. “If an RTI user is murdered his case will be closed automatically. Around 400 incidents of attacks on RTI user have been reported since 2005. They are susceptible to threats, intimidation, physical assault and murder. Even the Whistleblower Protection Act does not come to their rescue, as its coverage kicks in only when a citizen makes a complaint of corruption using the information obtained under RTI, whereas, attacks have occurred simply because citizens filed RTI applications.”
And protection from the state does not come easy. As Vyapam’s skeletons started to tumble, threats to Dr Rai and his family increased. Eventually, it was a ‘supari’ (murder contract) in his name that led Rai to seek police protection in November 2013. Rai was provided the security – a gunman – at the cost of ₹50,000. As Rai could not afford ₹50,000, he appealed to the high court for protection.
“Since Vyapam was a very high profile case and the judge was understanding enough. He instructed I should be provided security without being charged for it,” he says. So far, Rai has been lucky. However, many others are not. Like Suhas Haldankar who exposed civic lapses at Kharalwadi in Pune was murdered with concrete blocks on April 9. According to data of Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, at least 65 murders can be linked to the victim’s use of RTI. And 2017 has already witnessed three murders of activists.
Harsh Mander a key campaigners of the Act says that the proposed rules would water down, instead of strengthening the Act. “It is one of the most important laws for accountability and transparency. Clause 12 will incentivise people to eliminate those who are asking difficult questions. These people are vulnerable and such provisions will make them more vulnerable.” Mander says if any RTI applicant is harmed, the information sought should be placed in the public domain. “This would disincentives people to at least some extent before killing them (RTI applicants).”
Activists highlight since there is no legal provision to provide protection to RTI activists, many of them had sought protection from the state in the past, but failed to get any support. Bhardwaj highlights the murders of Nandi Singh from Assam and Ram Thakur from Bihar. “After Nandi Singh was first attacked in August 2012, he filed a case in the court of the CJM seeking security for his life. Failing to get security, Singh was cut into pieces in September 2012. Similarly, Thakur had been attacked at least five times, before he was murdered in March 2013. He had requested the police for protection more than once.”
A senior official in the DoPT said the security of the applicants is paramount. “The draft rule suggestions came from The Central Information Commission and their view on Clause 12 was that if an applicant dies, whom do they hand over the information to.
However, constructive suggestions from the civil society will be taken into consideration before finalizing,” says the official.
On adding a special protection clause in the Act, the senior official stated that the RTI Act was never perceived as penal. “The Indian Penal Code has such provisions; therefore there is no need for a specific penal clause in the RTI Act. Police is a state subject and if a complainant is not provided security, then it’s the failure of the local machinery,” he says.
Former Central Information Commissioner Shailesh Gandhi avers it is the duty of the state to provide protection to every citizen who feels threatened and not just RTI activists. “Protection to all, not just RTI activists should be threat assessment based. We should not create a separate class of people and provide for their security.”
To protect the identity of the applicants, the DoPT issued an order in October 2016 stating that while uploading the RTI replies on the websites of the ministries and departments, the personal details of RTI applicants should not be disclosed.
“We try every bit to protect the identity of the applicant so that he is not caused any harm,” clarified the official.
But the reality is different. Pankti Jog of the Mahiti Adhikar Gujarat Pahel says that while the primary duty of the Public Information Officer (PIO) is to give out the information sought by the applicant, in most cases the PIO is the first point from where the details of the applicant are leaked. This is especially true in rural and semi urban areas. “Shailesh Kantilal Patel of Gujarat filed an RTI application on June 15, 2015 at noon at the district superintendent of police’s office. He was murdered on the same evening. There is no definite way to prove, how and who kills RTI applicants,” Jog says.
Activists say there is no effective grievances redressal mechanism in the Act, and even when RTI applicants seek protection, the State Security Council weighs the ‘Threat Perception Report’ before deciding the tenure and eligibility for protection and by that time, the information seeker is already harmed.
Bhardwaj says the political will required to ensure the RTI Act is implemented in letter and spirit is missing. “There are three vacant posts in the Central Information Commission. Even the Chief Information Commissioner’s post was left vacant for more than 9 months and the appointment was made only on the order of the court. Similarly, none of the accountability legislations - Lokpal Act, and Whistle Blowers Protection Act have been operationalised.”