At a crowded public hearing, on the attacks on the Right to Information (RTI) Act users in Bihar held at Patna on Tuesday, where families of 15 slain RTI activists had gathered to express their grievances, it is clear that the whistle-blowers, who sacrifice their lives for demanding public accountability, are hardly respected by the law-enforcing authorities, judiciary or the state government.
Anita Devi, wife and Suryakant, the 16-year-old son of RTI activist Shashidhar Mishra, who was shot dead on 14 February 2010, attended the jansunwai
(public hearing), from their Fulwadi village. Recalling how, through RTI, his father exposed irregularities and corruption in child development projects; railway tenders; road and drain constructions and government schemes like Indira Awas Yojna, Mr Mishra proudly stated, “My father could not tolerate social injustice and so he used to keep exposing the wrongdoings by using the RTI Act.”
Ms Devi said, “Although 12 years have passed, no culprit has been caught. Initially, due to public pressure, they caught three people and put them in jail but soon they were released on bail.” As per the observation in the report, made after painstaking research on the 20 RTI killings in Bihar by Social Accountability Forum for Action and Research (SAFAR), “There are many loopholes in the investigation and prosecution.”
Bhola Shah of village Banka, who was whisked away by some people from his home on 22 February 2018, in a vehicle, was found dead in a bush. His brother, who had attended the jansunwai, said, “My brother, who had used RTI to exposed monetary irregularities in the construction of anganwadi centres, other public works and MGNREGA, was killed even before he got the information.”
As per the SAFAR report, “Police investigations reveal that, due to pressure from the Sahu Samaj, police was initially forced to take action. Presently though, the accused are out on bail. So far, six witnesses have testified in this case. The matter is still mainly at the police investigation stage.”
Praveen Kumar Jha, an RTI activist from Banka, was brutally killed on 6 September 2021 by being crushed and mowed down by a car. He was the head of Bharko village and exposed corruption in sand and running of government schools. His brother, who attended the jansunwai,
said that he and his family members continue to get threats. As per the SAFAR report, “The three accused were granted bail by the Patna High Court on 25 May 2022.”
Two farmers, Valmiki Yadav and Dharmendra Yadav of Jamui, used RTI for mini-irrigations schemes, Panchayati raj departments and details on appointments of posts of sevikas at anganwadi centres. Both were shot dead on the same day, that is, on 5 July 2018. The family member, who had attended the jansunwai, said that they are being pressurised to withdraw the case and get death threats.
The SAFAR report observes, “The police have registered an FIR against nine people in both the cases. All the accused are presently in jail. The case is going on in the Jamul Sessions Court.”
Twenty RTI activists, who have been killed so far in Bihar since 2010, were whistle-blowers at the grassroots level like the gram panchayats and small towns. They put their life on the line of fire for demanding accountability of public funds and for questioning corruption and financial irregularities in various government schemes.
Just like in Maharashtra, where this author, along with senior journalist Prasannakuma Keskar, had researched on 13 RTI murders in Maharashtra, compiled in the book Life and Death in the Time of RTI, family members of the slain activists in Bihar face similar problems. These include death threats, pressure to withdraw cases, delay in catching the accused or, if caught by the police, inordinate delay or shoddy investigations and lethargic court trials. They also get hardly any support from the society they live in or any compensation or help from the government. Most of them are leading a hand-to-mouth existence. Ms Devi, for example, says that her parents support her financially.
The jansunwai was organised by SAFAR, Jan Jagran Shakti Sanghatan (JJSS), National Campaign for Peoples’ Right to Information (NCPRI) and National Alliance for Peoples’ Movement (NAPM). Members of the jury comprised stalwart RTI activist Aruna Roy, former IPS officer and activist Amitabh Das and this author, Vinita Deshmukh. Soon, recommendations of the jansunwai will be published.
(Vinita Deshmukh is consulting editor of Moneylife. She is also the 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”.)