Going by the research conducted and compiled in the book Life and Death in the Time of RTI, the 13 slain RTI activists of Maharashtra between 2010 and 2018 have yet to get even an iota of justice, thanks to a callous criminal justice system and apathy by the state administration, society in general and the media.
The 13 RTI activists who were brutally killed between 2010-2018 were: Satish Shetty (Pune – 2010); Dattatreya Patil (Kolhapur – 2010); Ramdas Bapuji Ubale-Gadegaonkar (Nanded – 2010); Vitthal Gitte (Beed – 2011); Premnath Jha (Thane – 2012); Com.
Kapurchand Gupta (Mumbai Suburban – 2012); Sunil Kumar Loharia (Mumbai Suburban – 2013); Vasant Patil (Mumbai Suburban – 2013); Abrar Ahmad Jamil Ansari (Thane – 2013)
; Bhupendra Vira (Mumbai Suburban – 2016); Mohan Ganuji Waghmare (Yavatmal – 2017); Suhas Bhaurao Haldankar (Pune – 2017) and Shailesh Nimse (Thane – 2018).
All of them had filed a series of RTI applications to get information on financial irregularities, corruption and land grabs in various villages, towns and cities of the seven districts of Maharashtra. None of them had any vested interest but were epitomes of citizen pro-activeness that strengthens democracy. All they wanted was transparency and accountability in governance, for the larger social good. Instead, they suffered brutal deaths in broad daylight, leaving their families fearful and in most cases, in financial distress.
The study observes that every RTI user in this country is unsafe as he or she has no protection from the untoward elements. It states, “At the end of this study we are reasonably convinced, unless transparency and accountability systems are strengthened, the phenomenon of attacks on RTI activists and users is not likely to disappear. If examples of other attacks where the victims survived to tell the tale are any indication, even a citizen’s maiden RTI intervention to unearth possible wrongdoing in a government agency could become hazardous to his life and safety. In these 13 cases of murder that we investigated, the acquittals of the alleged accused and the delayed trials have had a chilling effect not only on the survivors but also other members of the community in which the victims lived and walked.’’
The research offers the following recommendations that governments, public authorities and information commissions (within and outside Maharashtra) must urgently implement to ensure a safe atmosphere for RTI activists and whistle-blowers:
• the Central government must immediately bring into force the Whistle-blowers Protection Act (WBP Act), which Parliament enacted in February 2014 without making any of the retrograde amendments that were proposed in 2015;
• the state government must urgently notify competent authorities to act upon complaints from whistle-blowers including RTI activists who submit evidence-based complaints of wrongdoing and corruption in public authorities;
• the state government must put in place a scheme for ensuring safety of RTI activists and whistle-blowers by expanding upon the WBP Act to prevent such attacks, after widespread consultation with civil society actors, media representatives and citizen activists;
• Maharasthra’s Lokayukta Act must be reviewed in the light of the provisions of the Lokpal and Lokayukta Acts that Parliament enacted in 2013 to ensure alignment between the two laws and provide for an effective mechanism to act on complaints of corruption and other offences and irregularities committed by public servants;
• The human rights commissions at the state and national level must adopt a policy of treating all individuals who use RTI in matters of public interest or indulge in whistle-blowing on corruption and wrongdoing in public authorities, as human rights defenders;
• The human rights commissions must use their powers under the Protection of Human Rights Act, 1993 to ensure professional and time-bound investigation of cases of attacks on RTI activists and users and become observers of the ensuing criminal trials;
• As custodians of the fundamental rights guaranteed by the Constitution, the high courts must put in place systems to seek reports from the respective courts to ensure fair and speedy trial of criminal cases pertaining to attacks on RTI activists and whisteblowers. Article 227 of the Constitution empowers them with such wide powers of superintendence over the trial courts;
• Police departments and commissionerates must work in tandem with the state information commissions to develop protocols and training programmes for investigating officers to explore linkages with the RTI activism of victims of crime before filing their final reports or charge sheets before the courts for further action;
• Civil society groups must conduct capacity building programmes for RTI activists and whistle-blowers who work without any organisational affiliation to engage in media advocacy in order to publicise the outcomes of their interventions. A fair amount of publicity for their work can act as a deterrent against possible attacks from vested interests;
• RTI activists and whistle-blowers must be sensitised and trained to handle their RTI interventions in a professional manner without turning it into a one-on-one attack on officers or politicians or vested interests who may be involved in the wrongdoing. This can reduce the possibility of enmity taking root and obviate the possibility of murderous attacks on RTI activists and whistle-blowers; and
• Governments must invest sufficient resources in developing the capacity of public authorities to proactively publish on their website all RTI applications, replies and information supplied to requestors including whistle-blower complaints and action taken in such matters. When information about allegations of wrongdoing and of corruption become public knowledge
through official channels, targeted attacks on RTI activists and whistle-blowers are likely to be reduced.
(The study conducted by my colleague Prasannakumar Keskar and me is an outcome of the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI) fellowship awarded to us. It was conceptualised and edited by Venkatesh Nayak, CHRI’s RTI researcher.)
(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”.)