While the government at one end time and again attempts to deflate the Sunshine Act, at the other end harassment to RTI activists too never ceases
Deliberately under-staffing State Information Commissions (SICs); PIOs citing Section 8 with unfailing regularity as an excuse not to part with information; assaulting RTI activists; tarnishing their reputation are some of the ways being sought to deflate the RTI (Right to Information) Act.
Case I: Pankti Jog is a prominent member of the Mahiti Adhikar Gujarat Pahel (MAGP), an Ahmedabad based RTI organisation, renowned for its helpline service that has facilitated thousands in the state to file RTI applications and get guidance in RTI related matters. MAGP’s mobile van service that spreads RTI awareness in villages has also helped in RTI literacy in the state.
Last week, she was accused of indirectly having terrorist links, as per the submission made by the Public Information Officer (PIO) of the Department of Forest & Environment to the State Information Commission.
States Pankti, “`In one of my RTI applications filed with the Department Of Forest And Environment way back in 2009, I had sought copies of its communication with the ministry of environment and forest regarding permission given to a multi-national company for the expansion of its pipelines which would cut through the reserved forests of the treasured marine national park in Jamnagar district. I was surprised at the submission made by the PIO to the State Information Commission that, “if information is given to Pankti Jog then it could land in the hands of a terrorist, thus the info cannot be given.” Due to delay in reply, Pankti had filed a second appeal with the SIC which had asked the PIO to give reasons for not providing information.
According to Pankti, the PIO who denied her information for nearly two years argued before the SIC last week that blasts and terrorist attacks occured due to sensitive information made available to terrorists. Pankti, who amplified this unjustified stand taken by the PIO, went viral on email stating that, “I think I have to tell the government …my name is Pankti and I am not a terrorist…” The result? The PIO retracted his statement. The matter will come for hearing before the SIC early next week.
However, it is important to understand that information relating to a powerful MNC was kept in abeyance for nearly two years. This particular issue relates to the expansion of a pipeline belonging to Essar the group which is to cut through the marine national park, to facilitate expansion of the pipeline but it would mean disturbing the reserved forest area. Hence, Pankti had also filed a petition in the Gujarat High Court besides filing a RTI Application.
The RTI application dates back to 28 April 2009. The information sought was: “a certified copy of the report submitted by the committee for the use of forest land by Essar Bulk Terminal in Jamnagar; certified copy of the letter/communication to director, environment, sent by the ministry of environment and forests regarding Coastal Regulation Zone Clearance for the proposed jetties and sea water intake and effluent release facility for the thermal power project of Essar Power Gujarat (EPGL) of Salaya creek at Jamnagar district and; certified copy of the study reports done by National Institute of Oceanography Goa on Marine Environment Management & Strategies for Gulf of Kutch.”
States Pankti, The communication between state and central government plays a key role in making us understand the permissions given to the MNC and whether environmental laws are being violated. However, in the garb of ‘security’, the entire information was denied to me. The government has the right to withhold information pertaining to sensitive coastal security, and can give me partial information. Instead, the PIO and the Appellate Authority (AA) raised questions about my locus standi in the project area and also argued there is no public interest in this issue. It is unfortunate and shameful that the PIO of the department of forest & environment at Gandhinagar is more interested in protecting the vested interest of a MNC rather than protecting environment.”
Case 2: In Hardoi, UP, IITian and RTI activist beaten up
This incident is not directly related to a RTI application but is about a young IIT student and a budding RTI activist who works tirelessly for RTI applicants and wants to remain anonymous. He files RTI applications on their behalf. His name is Sangh Priya Rahul, a third year student of IIT Kharagpur and one of the managers of the unique organisation ‘RTI Anonymous.’ (www.getup4change.org).
RTI Anonymous is run by a group of young technologists from the USA and India and was born after the brutal killing of RTI activist Shehla Masood. The website states: “`We are concerned that many of our fellow citizens who have filed RTI applications have been routinely targeted and eliminated by vested interests. We just can’t let this continue” and hence have taken it upon themselves to file RTI application on behalf of citizens who are afraid to come out in the open.
Last week, Rahul visited his home town Harnoi in Uttar Pradesh (UP) for a short holiday and decided to renew his driving license. When he approached the window where they click a computerized photograph of the applicant, he was asked to pay a bribe of Rs100. Rahul refused saying there’s no such rule. The RTO official at the window insisted he part with Rs100 as everyone else does so. To this, Rahul stated that he would file a RTI application to find out irregularities being done at the RTO. He also asked all the applicants who had come there to seek driving licenses, not to pay the Rs100.
At this point, says Rahul, “about 20 RTO officers physically assaulted me and I was left bleeding. As I lay on the ground, I was asked again whether I was ready to pay the bribe. When I refused again, I was mercilessly kicked by the officers.’’ In the meanwhile, Rahul had turned on the voice mail of his cell phone and recorded their demand for bribe. You can listen to this on the YouTube.
Thereafter, Rahul visited the police station to register an FIR against the RTO officers but the police refused to lodge an FIR. After local media coverage, the FIR was filed. Says Rahul, “my fight for corruption has become stronger.”
In the meanwhile, Anand Sharma, one of the founders of RTI Anonymous is campaigning for Rahul, urging citizens to sign the online petition, in order to pressurize local officials to take action against the culprits.
Here’s how Anand has used social networking site and technology to campaign from overseas:
• A Facebook Welcome page (Justice for Sangh Priya Rahul) has been created
• A webpage has been created that updates news and progress of the case
• An online petition has been created. Says Anand, “every time people click and ‘sign’ this petition, an email will be sent to the official email address of the following four people. The idea is flood them with a deluge of emails and hopefully, that will gain their attention
a) RK Saxena(OSD to the state governor )
b) RC.Misra (secretary - personnel) MOP&PG, New Delhi
c) Director, Dept of I&P.R(Govt of Uttar Pradesh)
d) Uttar Pradesh Lokayaukta
• Also, a video of Rahul has been uploaded on YouTube. The 1.56 minute video describes the entire sequence of events by Rahul himself
(Vinita Deshmukh is consulting editor of Moneylife. She is also 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. She can be reached at [email protected])