Another Right to Information (RTI) activist was brutally murdered on Sunday, making it the 16th such murder in Maharashtra and 65th in the country since 2010, besides assaults on nearly 400 activists.
In the latest fatal assault, Pune-based Suhas Haldankar, who exposed irregularities in civic works and inefficiencies of corporators in Pimpri Chinchwad, was savagely attacked with cement blocks by 11 men, including a former corporator from the Congress party. The attack took place when Haldankar was returning home late Sunday night on his bike. He was stopped on the way and bludgeoned to death. Eleven persons were nabbed by the police in connection with the murder.
The new RTI Draft Rule 12, issued by the DOPT, is in complete contravention of the 2011 recommendation of the Central Information Commission (CIC). The Draft Rule permits the CIC to allow appeals to terminate on the death of an appellant. The DoPT has sought suggestions and objections on the entire Draft Rules. What is worrisome is that Rule 12, which pertains to the RTI application in case of the applicant’s death, is not what the CIC recommended, which is that the information sought by late applicant must be immediately put on the public domain.
As per Rule 12 in the New Draft Rules of RTI issued by the DoPT, which is now in the public domain for suggestions and objections from the public, “Withdrawal/Abatement of Appeal :-. (2) The proceedings pending before the Commission shall abate on the death of the appellant”
In stark contrast, the CIC, in a full court meeting held on 13 September 2011, had passed the following Resolution:
1. The Central Information Commission expresses regret and takes note of the reported killings of and assault on RTI users across the country. The Commission underlines the need to take urgent steps by the respective Governments for the safety and protection of the RTI users. The Commission strongly believes that it is the duty and responsibility of the respective Governments to safeguard the life and liberty of the RTI users, for which purpose they should invoke the relevant penal provisions for the prevention and detection of such heinous crimes.
2. This Commission, therefore, resolves that if it receives a complaint regarding assault or murder of an information seeker, it will examine the pending RTI applications of the victim and order the concerned Department(s) to publish the requested information suo motu on their website as per the provisions of law.
3. This Commission also resolves that it will take proactive steps in ascertaining the status of investigations/prosecutions of the cases involving information seekers and endeavor to have these processes expedited.”
Condemning the murder of Haldankar, the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI) has demanded that the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) monitor the ongoing police investigation. It has also sent a requisition to the Maharashtra State Chief Information Commissioner to call for all pending RTI applications filed by Haldankar before public authorities in Pimpri Chinchwad and direct them to proactively disclose all information in accordance with the RTI Act. CHRI has documented these attacks on a Google Map. Readers may visit the Hall of Shame
Several activist and legal experts have asked for modification of Rule 12. RK Jain, President, Excise and Customs Bar Association, writes, “…the proposed Rule 12(2) thus needs to be suitably modified to provide that in the case of death of information seeker, who has sought information in larger public interest or against the corrupt practices, such information may be directed to be placed on the website of the concerned Department despite the death of the appellant, so that the purpose of silencing the information seeker is defeated.”
Writing in Swarajya, another legal expert, Madhumita D. Mitra, says, “For a government aiming to root out corruption, it should be obvious that allowing withdrawal/abatement will only strengthen the might of this venal public-private nexus. Every RTI application points to a lapse in governance, either by omission or commission, which subsists even after the death of an applicant. The final outcome of an information request instigates a service delivery or course correction, whether it is an individual’s personal grievance or a case of corruption and maladministration. Closing pending appeals/complaints in this manner not only undermines the purpose of the RTI application, but does disservice to the applicant’s family and to the benefit that may have accrued to public interest at large by the disclosure.
“Legally too, the proposed Rule 12 will not stand scrutiny. The Supreme Court has made clear in a 2013 judgment (Union of India vs. Namit Sharma) that IC proceedings under the RTI Act are purely administrative in nature, requiring a simple determination whether the requested information should be disclosed or not. It is not a civil or a criminal matter. Even under civil law, abatement of proceedings on death of a party is not absolute and heirs and legal representatives retain their right to sue. In criminal cases, the death of a complainant does not terminate the criminal proceeding and the magistrate can exercise his powers to decide whether the complaint should be dismissed or the accused acquitted or discharged.”
RTI activist Vijay Kumbhar says, “…the same rule existed in the 2012 Rules, which are set for amendment now and at that time too activists had vociferously registered their objections. Despite that, they have included the Rule 12 in the Draft Rules 2017. This is indeed treacherous of the government and a way of encouraging murder of RTI activists.”
Pondering on the grievous implications if Rule 12 of the Draft RTI Rules 2017 comes into force, Venkatesh Nayak, research scholar and programme coordinator of CHRI, says, “If the Central Government has its way, all RTI applications and appeals that Suhas Haldankar may have filed with public authorities would abate automatically on his death. The accused who battered him to death with cement blocks would attain a victory ... Civil society actors have been demanding that the RTI Rules do not allow for the closure of appeals on the appellant's death.”
RTI activist Lokesh Batra considers Rule 12 as “dangerous for appellants.”
(Vinita Deshmukh is consulting editor of Moneylife, an RTI activist and convener of the Pune Metro Jagruti Abhiyaan. She is the recipient of prestigious awards like the Statesman Award for Rural Reporting, which she won twice in 1998 and 2005, and the Chameli Devi Jain award for outstanding media person for her investigation series on Dow Chemicals. She co-authored the book, “To The Last Bullet - The Inspiring Story of A Braveheart - Ashok Kamte”, with Vinita Kamte, and is the author of “The Mighty Fall”.