An RTI application to the forest department about land under it in Bandewadi and Tara villages had the Khaap Panchayat penalise Laxman Thakur but he successfully fought it. Here’s how
When it comes to the unreasonable diktats of Khaap Panchayats across the country, the village residents tend to live in fear and give in to them. Laxman Thakur, a resident of Panvel in Raigad District of Maharashtra, however, fought it by bravely amplifying the issue through media and by filing a police complaint, resulting in the Panchayat of Bandewadi and Tara villages of Panvel retreating from penalising him for his use of RTI and even principally agreeing to return his cultivated land.
About five months back, on 4 December 2014, Thakur, filed a RTI application to the local forest department of Panvel seeking information on land that was under it in the villages of Bandewadi and Tara. While no applicant needs to give a reason for filing RTI, Thakur told Moneylife, when contacted that, ``our family has been tilling small farmland of about 7,000 sq ft since the last five decades and cultivating vegetables but suddenly on July 2014 the Panchayat Committee declared it was the public land, broke down our compound and did not allow us to continue cultivation.’’ Despite his pleas to the Gram Panchayat to show proof that the land belongs to it, the latter did not relent.
Hence, he filed the RTI application on 4th December to understand who is the legal custodian of his ancestral land and was shocked to note that ``the forest officer actually told the Sarpanch that I have sought information under RTI against the village and that I should be asked to withdraw.’’ This triggered off a series of pressure tactics from the Gram Panchayat says Thakur.
Thakur was immediately summoned for the village meeting and asked to withdraw the RTI application. Thakur told them the least he can do is not file First Appeal in case the PIO does not reply to his query in 30 days. This was not taken kindly and Thakur was slammed a penalty of Rs500 for filing RTI and Rs2,000 for not agreeing to withdraw it. Thakur states, ``the meeting was very intimidating. There were 150 villagers including the Panch committee members. All of them were hurling abuses at me for filing RTI and pressurizing me through foul language to withdraw the RTI application.’’ Thakur did not relent saying it is his right to use RTI as he was not getting information from the Gram Panchayat. Then they asked him to come for two subsequent meetings but he did not attend.
Thereafter, on 5th April, 2015, he was summoned to come before the `jury’ wherein one representative of noted families of the villages gather to take decision on any controversial issue, particularly that which might damage the reputation of the village. They again reiterated that since the last 200 years, no one had dared to ask such information and again asked him to withdraw the application. When he declined, they got hostile, says Thakur, increased the penalty to Rs5,000 and Rs2,000 respectively – one for having filed RTI and two for not withdrawing it. ``One of them picked up a brick to hit me. They also threatened to ostracise my family.’’
Even then Thakur refused to give in and instead filed a police complaint at the Panvel Police Station on 14th April. This resulted in the local media carrying his story.
On 16th April, Assistant Commissioner of Police, Panvel, summoned the village chiefs and questioned them about the incident. It is to the credit of the police and to Thakur who stood for his rights, that, the Gram Panchayat has withdrawn the condition of penalty on him and have principally agreed to return the land to Thakur. Says Thakur, ``I am waiting to see it happen,’’
There’s a lot for village residents to learn from Thakur, when it comes to their rights.