Yet again, another RTI activist was brutally murdered. This time it was Ahmedabad-based Nadeem Sayeed. Will this trend soon become a run-of-the-mill crime story or is there hope? The ball is actually in the government's court - all it has to do is enforce Section 4 of RTI Act in right earnest - which mandates suo moto disclosure by all its departments
Ahmedabad-based Nadeem Sayeed is the latest Right to Information (RTI) activist to have been brutally killed in broad daylight. Last year too he was seriously assaulted but continued his campaign to expose bad governance by filing RTIs related to illegal cow slaughterhouses, bad sanitation and asking uncomfortable queries to two police officers and a Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) leader against whom charge sheet was not filed despite him being declared accused in an extortion case.
Silencing of whistleblowers with knives and guns seems to have become an untoward trend, thanks to culprits roaming free due to pathetic police investigations and government's hollow assurances on giving police protection to RTI activists and bringing in a strong Whistleblowers Protection Law. After Pune-based RTI activist Satish Shetty's murder in January 2010, the state government, prompted by a High Court directive, issued a circular assuring immediate lodging of non-cognisable first information report (FIR) by the police and speedy investigations, besides protection. Read entire circular here: (http://www.box.net/shared/451mngegta).
Recently, speaking at the Central Information Convention in Delhi, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said, "I would like to mention here our initiative to enact legislation for the protection of Whistleblowers which would further strengthen the Right to Information. We expect this law to be enacted in the next few months and it would, among other things, help in prevention of violence against those who seek to expose wrongdoings in our public administration.''
However, the irony is that, the government need not look here and there for protecting activists - it is just one step away from ensuring minimum threats to RTI activists as the RTI Act itself has provisions for maximum transparency. The reference is to Section 4 of the RTI Act, which makes it mandatory for every government department to disclose most of its functions. In fact, every 'Public Authority' had to make this information accessible to public within 120 days of the enactment of the RTI Act, which was back in 2005 and regularly update the information thereafter. However, six years down the line, official secrecy is rampant if you consider that most of the 'Public Authorities' have been reticent in updating their websites in providing maximum information about its activities.
So, you may ask, how is this connected to curtailing threats and killings? The reason is simple - citizens invoke RTI to demand transparency in the small and large scale projects that the government undertakes, be in the land deals; in the concessions or grants it gives for various schemes; in the construction of civic utilities like roads, school buildings; in the funds it disburses for various purposes and so on. If all such information is readily available on the websites of the relevant government departments, there would not be any need for citizens and activists to file an RTI application and invoke ire from untoward elements.
Before that, let us see how the vicious circle of revenge and animosity can be brought to a full stop - a way that is not necessarily Utopian. The seed of threats and killings of activists, which hang like a Damocles' Sword is corruption, as commissions, kickbacks, financial irregularities and other scandalous issues surround projects meant for the public which largely funds them through the tax it pays.
If the government sternly enforces Section 4, then the first place of sin - of shady deals, bribes and financial irregularities, the bane of governance today, wherein the nexus of government officers at all levels, elected representatives and contractors that is all too well-known would be minimized. This is because both the lower and higher bureaucracy would be made accountable for their line of action as most of the information would be available in the public domain. Already, government officers are wary of the RTI Act. One of the senior police officers confessed sometime back to me that, “Earlier I used to casually put in remarks on files (called file noting which come under RTI Act) but now I am very careful as people have access to this information too.'' Hence, transparency can trigger off the need to come clean while executing projects and deals by the public authorities.
So, all that the government need to do is find ways by which strong directives to every department (which it can issue again at the backdrop of killings of RTI activists) to abide by Section 4 would be sternly enforced. This would compel government departments to put up information in the public domain made mandatory by Section 4 of the RTI Act. This would in turn make information accessible to the public at the click of the mouse. Result? More than 70% or more of RTI applications would be reduced, say experts. More importantly, threats and killings would slowly but steadily become redundant.
Under Section 4, every government department or Public Authority as it is termed in the RTI Act, is required to put up the following information, on its websites. This would reveal the extent of transparency that is mandatory on the part of the government and why uploading of such information from time to time would drastically reduce the number of RTI applications and also threats and killings of activists:
1. The particulars of its organisation, functions and duties;
2. The powers and duties of its officers and employees;
3. The procedure followed in the decision making process, including channels of supervision and accountability;
4. The norms set by it for the discharge of its functions;
5. The rules, regulations, instructions, manuals and records, held by it or under its control or used by its employees for discharging its functions;
6. A statement of the categories of documents that are held by it or under its control;
7. The particulars of any arrangement that exists for consultation with, or representation by, the members of the public in relation to the formulation of its policy or implementation thereof;
8. A statement of the boards, councils, committees and other bodies consisting of two or more persons constituted as its part or for the purpose of its advice, and as to whether meetings of those boards, councils, committees and other bodies are open to the public, or the minutes of such meetings are accessible for public;
9. A directory of its officers and employees;
10. The monthly remuneration received by each of its officers and employees, including the system of compensation as provided in its regulations;
11. The budget allocated to each of its agency, indicating the particulars of all plans, proposed expenditures and reports on disbursements made;
12. The manner of execution of subsidy programmes, including the amounts allocated and the details of beneficiaries of such programmes;
13. Particulars of recipients of concessions, permits or authorisations granted by it;
14. Details in respect of the information, available to or held by it, reduced in an electronic form;
15. The particulars of facilities available to citizens for obtaining information, including the working hours of a library or reading room, if maintained for public use;
16. The names, designations and other particulars of the Public Information Officers;
17. Such other information as may be prescribed and thereafter update these publications every year;
1. It shall be a constant endeavour of every public authority to take steps in accordance with the requirements of clause (b) of sub-section (1) to provide as much information suo motu to the public at regular intervals through various means of communications, including internet, so that the public have minimum resort to the use of this Act to obtain information.
2. For the purposes of sub-section (1), every information shall be disseminated widely and in such form and manner which is easily accessible to the public.
3. All materials shall be disseminated taking into consideration the cost effectiveness, local language and the most effective method of communication in that local area and the information should be easily accessible, to the extent possible in electronic format with the Central Public Information Officer or State Public Information Officer, as the case may be, available free or at such cost of the medium or the print cost price as may be prescribed.
Explanation For the purposes of sub-sections (3) and (4), "disseminated" means making known or communicated the information to the public through notice boards, newspapers, public announcements, media broadcasts, the internet or any other means, including inspection of offices of any public authority.
Need we explain more? The question is: why is the government silent on this action? From time to time several Information Commissioners have been giving stern orders to abide by Section 4 to government departments when they receive complaints from RTI applicants. They have also been sending circulars to these departments to be transparent as per Section 4. However, if the government has the will and cares for the protection of whistleblowers, it can issue such a directive within a day.
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