Government officers often term right to information (RTI) activists as blackmailers but neither put information on their website to support their allegations nor lodge a police complaint against those who they allege is a blackmailers. This silence is seen as an attempt by them to cause disrepute to the RTI Act for which they sometimes get support from the judiciary.
However, when an information commissioner decides to write to the police commissioner requesting information on complaints received or first information report (FIR) filed against the “self-declared RTI activists or social worker allegedly involved in extortion or blackmail,” it is time to take notice of some individuals, who are indeed blackening the face of this transparency law.
In a rare and admirable action, Rahul Pande, former city editor of The Hitwada newspaper and recently appointed state information commissioner of Nagpur, with an additional charge of Aurangabad, has sought information from Nagpur’s commissioner of police and superintendent of police (rural), which includes Wardha, Chandrapur, Gadchiroli, Bhandara and Gondia towns, on complaints lodged against such blackmailers.
Qualifying the reason why he had to take this action, he says it is because “there are several instances reported by media indicating misuse of a noble and benevolent legislation like RTI by a handful of undesirable elements masquerading as RTI activists and/ or social workers. In many cases reported by the media, such elements have indulged in extortion and blackmail by threatening to file RTI applications and to defame or prosecute such officials or private individuals/businessmen.”
Elaborating on the reasons for piling second appeals, Mr Pande told Moneylife, “The main reason for Maharashtra showing the most pendencies is because a handful of activists file countless RTI applications on the same subject. You will be shocked to know that in my jurisdiction alone, the top 10 applicants have filed around 8,000 RTI applications, mostly proforma applications and gone in for a second appeal. One of them, for example, has filed an RTI application to every gram panchayat of Maharashtra seeking the same information, amounting to 5,000 of them. When he did not receive the information, he filed a second appeal. Recently, I disposed of close to 1,000 of his second appeals in one go. Many officials, including the village sarpanch and officials from the forest and public works department (PWD) officers, have privately complained about such serial applicants, who use RTI as a tool for extortion.”
Aggrieved that this is causing strain on the disposal of genuine second appeal cases that come to him, Mr Pande says, “This is completely unacceptable and it defeats the very spirit of RTI Act, which is enacted to bridge the information asymmetry between citizens and the administration. Such abuse and misuse of RTI act and using it as a weapon to extract money is a matter of great concern and needs to be tackled with an iron hand within four corners of the law.”
In his letter to the police commissioner, he states, “It has also come to our notice that at several police stations and, going by media reports, at least in Chandrapur and in Gondia districts, two FIRs have been filed against such self-declared and so-called RTI activists and/ or social workers. It will be in the fitness of things if a compilation of such complaints and/ or FIRs registered at police stations under your jurisdiction is sent forthwith to the state information commission, indicating the present status of the complaint and whether the chargesheet is filed before the court of competent jurisdiction. We expect the response at the earliest, looking at the gravity of the matter.”
In one of his columns on TheFederal.com, Prof Shridhar Acharyulu, former central information commissioner, wrote, "If an RTI activist agrees to keep the information under wraps if the demanded money is shelled out, then the activist is a blackmailer for sure. Then the official could complain in the police station against the blackmailer. They never do it, but they try to escape by bribing the extortionist.”
Mr Pande has sought prompt cooperation from the law-enforcing authorities to help maintain the purity of the RTI regime. He rues that, “RTI Act 2005 is a noble legislation enacted to empower citizens and is being widely used to bring transparency in the administration and check on unbridled powers of the officials—so there should be a control on a handful of RTI users who are damaging this powerful, citizen-friendly law."
(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”.)