Abhimanyu Panda, a leading RTI activist of Odisha was shot and killed at his home in the Baliguda town of Kandamal district, ironically on 10th December, commemorated as the International Human Rights Day. As per the National Campaign for People's Right to Information (NCPRI)’s `Hall of Shame’ record, until now 85 whistle blowers have been brutally done to death and 445 have been assaulted in various parts of the country, ever since the RTI Act was implemented in 2005 and last week Panda’s name was scripted amongst the 85 martyrs.
Quite admirably, each time RTI activists in Odisha are assaulted or killed, a group of RTI activists under the umbrella of `Odisha Soochana Abhijan Abhiyaan’ (OSAA) immediately visit the spot, carry out in-depth investigations and submit the report to the relevant authorities and put it up for public view, online.
The OSAA report on Panda’s death states at the outset that, ``more than 50 RTI activists have been beaten up severely, harassed, tortured and charged with fabricated criminal cases and their stories have gone unnoticed. The recent attack on the RTI activists in Odisha exposes a new pattern of attack in a well-organised manner to annihilate RTI activists and subsequently make the RTI Act dysfunctional in the state.’’
The killing of Panda was so brazen that his wife Chhabirani Panda who was eye-witness to the horrendous incident has stated to OSAA, which writes in its report that, ``at around 7.30 am, two unknown persons came to their residence and asked to meet her husband. Accordingly, she informed her husband and returned to her household work.
After a few minutes, she heard heated exchange followed by someone screaming.
She came out of her home and saw two unknown persons fleeing on a motor bike and her husband lying on the ground. She called family members and carried her husband in an auto-rickshaw to the hospital where the doctor declared, him “brought dead” due to firing.
Panda had used RTI to expose mega scams in road construction, public building construction, irregularities in public distribution system, huge irregularities in the management of the famous Jagannath temple of Puri, liquor mafia and scandals of prominent political leaders. This was stated by his brother-in-law, Santosh Padhi, to the five member OSAA team.
The five members of OSAA who travelled to Baliguda for their fact-finding mission comprised Pradip Pradhan, RTI activist and convener of OSAA; Dr. Subash Mohapatra, Human Rights Activist and Advocate; and, RTI activists Muhammad Ziauddin, Anjan Rath and Jitendra Sahu.
In the meanwhile, Anjali Bhardwaj, Pankti Jog, Nikhil Dey, Venkatesh Nayak, Rakesh Dubbudu, Pradip Pradhan, Dr. Shaikh, on behalf of the NCPRI have also written to the Odisha chief minister (CM) urging timely and effective investigation and to make public, all the information that Panda had sought from various public authorities. The letter to the CM states that, ``the NCPRI strongly condemns this horrific murder and demands that the Odisha government conduct a thorough, timely and effective investigation into the death of Abhimanyu Panda. The NCPRI also urges the state government to immediately direct the concerned public authorities to disclose all information sought by him suo motu, in accordance with the provisions of the RTI Act. This will ensure that all information sought by Mr. Panda is widely publicized and would act as a deterrent against such attacks in the future.’’ The letter has also urged the Odisha state government to push for the central Whistleblowers’ Protection Act, which provides safeguards against victimization and protection to whistleblowers who expose corruption and wrongdoing.
Abhimanyu Panda’s courageous RTI journey
1. OSAA’s report records the various RTI requisitions that slain RTI activist Abhimanyu filed:
Mega corruption in construction work of a hostel in Kandhamal Mahavidyalaya, Sarangagada college: In 2013-14, PA, Integrated Tribal Development Agency (ITDA), Baliguda sanctioned Rs3 crore for the construction of 200 seated ST girls’ hostel building at Kandhamal Mahavidyalaya, Sarangagada under K. Nuagaon Block.
Ashok Kumar Panda, contractor and nephew of Krushna Mohan Panigrahi, leader of Biju Janata Dal, the ruling party ( this information was provided by Ajit Panda, younger brother of slain Abhimanyu Panda ) was assigned the work on 7 May 2015 vide agreement No. 7/2015. Even after four year had passed, the contractor neither completed the work nor handed over the building to the college.
On 14 October 2019, Abhimanyu Panda filed a complaint to the secretary, department of SC and ST welfare alleging huge corruption and irregularities and misappropriation of funds and long delay in the construction of the hostel by the contractor Ashok Panda and the problems faced by tribal students.
On 18 October 2019, he had filed RTI application to the PIO, office of ITDA, Baliguda seeking details of information about the project sanctioned, materials used, bill and vouchers against payments etc. From the RTI reply of 22 October 2019., he found that Rs2,22,29,931.00 has been paid to the contractor who has sought another extension for completion of work . But details of payment and bill and vouchers were not provided on the ground of non-availability.
On 18 October 2019, the PIO wrote a letter addressed to Ashok Kumar Panda, contractor to provide details of information to be supplied to the applicant but the contractor did not do so. After the completion of 30 days, Abhimanyu filed his first appeal on 19 November 2019 seeking direction from the First Appellate Authority to provide information. Abhimayu has alleged of misappropriation of Rs70 lakh by the contractor. Santosh Kumar Padhi reported that Krushna Mohan Panigrahi, BJD leader and the brother-in-law of Abhimanyu, had come to meet Abhimanyu at his residence and had put pressure on him by engaging mediators, including an uncle of Abhimanyu to withdraw the RTI application and complaints. Abhimanyu did not bow to their pressure but pursued the matter at the highest level.
2. Mobilization against the proposal for granting license to open an Indian Made Foreign Liquor (IMFL) Restaurant “ON” Shop at Kamapada under Ward No.1 of Baliguda NAC.
In 2017-18, the district excise office, Phulbani had issued notification No. 1470 dt. 6 October 2017 for issuing license to open an IMFL liquor shop without inviting public suggestions/objections. Abhimanyu was involved in anti-liquor movement in the area and had opposed the proposal of the district administration to issue license to open an IMFL restaurant “ON” Shop at Kamapada under Ward No.1 of Baliguda NAC. He filed the case in the High Court , Odisha W.P. ( C) No. 9139/2018 ( Snehalata Mallik vs- State and others) in 2018 and got an interim stay order with a direction to the collector, Kandhamal to hear the matter and follow the procedure after hearing it. Abhimanyu had also mobilized public petitions against liquor shops and had filed a series of RTI applications to the district excise office, Phulbani for monitoring of the government decision. License was held up by the district administration.
3. Allegation of misappropriation and illegality in road construction work by an agency named Anusha Projects (P) Ltd., Hyderabad under the State Highway Development Projects
Abhimanyu had exposed huge corruption and irregularities in the road construction work by an agency named Anusha Projects (P) Ltd., Hyderabad under State Highway Development Projects and had made complaints to the executive engineer, R& B, Phulbani, the collector, Kondhamal , the engineer-in-chief, Building, Nirman Bhawan, and to the secretary, department of public works, seeking an inquiry into it. He had also filed a complaint case no. 52/2013 in which the High Court had ordered him to approach the appropriate authority for the necessary relief. Then, he filed complaints to the above mentioned offices for inquiry and filed a series of RTI applications to monitor and to know the status of his complaints. His fight against this mega corruption may be another factor behind his murder.
4. Reform in the management committee of the Jagannath temple, Baliguda
Abhimanyu’s family members had appraised us of his enmity and bitter relations with members of the former management committee members of the Jagannath temple. Madhusudan Das, managing trustee had presented details of their struggle to save the property of the Jagannath temple from the clutches of unscrupulous members of the management committee. Both Madhusudan Das and Abhimanyu had worked together filling four writ petitions in the Odisha High Court and petitions in the endowment commission, Odisha, against the then management committee following which the endowment commissioner reconstituted the managing body on 26 July 2016 with Madhusudan Das as the managing trustee and Abhimanyu as a trustee member by ousting the president and secretary Shyam Sundar Patra. Abhimanyu was instrumental in obtaining an eviction order from the court for ousting shop owners who were not giving monthly rent for years together but were enjoying it illegally. He was also instrumental in issuing a notice for the open auction of 33 shops of the temple and had ousted many tenants from ownership of shops at the temple. He also succeeded in obtaining another order from the Odisha High Court on 28 September 2019 to evict Shyam Sundar Patra, from the shop who was forcibly and illegally occupying it for years without paying a single pie as rent. Abhimanyu had serious enmity with these shop owners and had received life threats from them.
5. Filing of around 50 complaints on corruption in the public distribution dystem (PDS) rice
On 6 and 7 December of 2019, Abhimanyu had filed more than 50 RTI applications to the panchayat samiti of Nuagaon, Phulbani, Udayagiri and Daringbadi and with a few gram panchayats seeking information about the details of allotment and distribution of rice to the beneficiaries (year-wise), those beneficiaries who were dropped from this scheme in each gram panchayat and their names. The information revealed that there was huge corruption in the distribution of rice by the gram panchayat and dealers in the panchayats, civil supply officers and sarapanchs in the area, as reported by family members and reflected in FIR.
(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