When right to information activist Guru Prasad Shukla was beaten to death by fellow villagers last month, he became the 39th person to lay down his life for exercising the transparency law in its first decade. (Illustration: Jayanto)
The 50-year-old Shukla had sought information about development work in his village and was allegedly killed by village head Triloki Nath Dubey and his relatives in broad daylight. Most other victims, too, suffered for exposing small scams in the countryside by using the law that came into force on October 2, 2005, the 136th birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi.
“The RTI law doesn’t provide that the name of the applicant shouldn’t be disclosed by the public authority. As soon as such an application is filed, the identity of the person gets disclosed to those whose interest may get harmed if the information is disclosed,” said Ventakesh Nayak of the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, a Delhi-based advocacy group that has collated data on RTI victims.
Under pressure from civil society, the UPA government enacted a law to protect whistle-blowers, including public servants. But, the NDA government did not notify it and moved amendments expanding the list of those exempted, which is being considered by a standing committee of Parliament.
Ajay Dubey, an RTI activist from Madhya Pradesh, who filed public interest litigation in the Supreme Court in October 2014 seeking a CBI probe into the Vyapam scam, said seeking information on any scam always led to harassment and undue pressure to withdraw the application.
In a rare instance in 2011, Bihar police established that 54-year-old Ram Vilas Singh was shot dead in Lakhi Sarai town for asking police why an accused in a murder case was not arrested. He had also filed several other applications seeking information on corruption in the implementation of the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS), the world’s largest job guarantee programme.
But, the police action happened only after the National Human Rights Commission sought a report from Bihar police. The case witnessed a quiet burial and most of the conspirators were out on bail, Nayak said.
A similar fate was witnessed in the cases of RTI activists such as Niyamat Ansari, who exposed corruption in the MGNREGS in Jharkhand, Amit Jetwa, who sought information on illegal mining in Gujarat’s Gir forest, and Satish Shetty, who attempted to highlight land grabbing in Pune. All three were murdered.
A Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative report shows the effectiveness of the law has been diluted. Around 20% of the posts of information commissioners mandated to ensure speedy redress of grievances of RTI users are lying vacant in states, a marginal increase over the 2014 level.
In five states, information commissions were headless as of June 2015 and the newly carved Telangana was yet to have one. “Most of the state commissions have become parking lots for retired bureaucrats,” an RTI activist said.