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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 19 June 2018

Knowledge is deadly for Indian activists seeking to expose corruption

Sixty-seven petitioners killed since Right to Information Act was passed in 2005

Shailesh Gandhi, a former member of India's Central Information Commission, says the killing of people seeking to expose suspected corruption through the Right to Information Act could be discouraged by making the information sought public anyway. Pradeep Gaur / Mint via Getty Images
Shailesh Gandhi, a former member of India's Central Information Commission, says the killing of people seeking to expose suspected corruption through the Right to Information Act could be discouraged by making the information sought public anyway. Pradeep Gaur / Mint via Getty Images

When a new road was laid in Nanji Sondarva’s village of Manekwada, in Gujarat, he wondered why it cost as much as it did, and whether the authorities had embezzled or mismanaged the funds in any way.

His curiosity may have cost him his life. Four days after Sondarva, 35, filed a Right to Information (RTI) request, asking the local government for details of the road construction project, he was clubbed to death.

On March 9, six men in a car hit Sondarva’s motorcycle as he was driving near his village. After Sondarva fell over, the men attacked him with iron bars.

His father, Meghabhai Sondarva, identified the men to the police. One of them was the leader of Manekwada village, whose corruption would have been exposed by his son’s RTI application, he claimed.

All six men have been arrested.

India's RTI Act, passed by parliament in 2005, allows citizens to access information about public projects, funding and governance in a bid to improve transparency and accountability. Governments must release the details requested within 30 days, except in unusual cases when aspects of national security or personal privacy are involved.

Petitioners can choose to publish more widely, or ignore, the information released to them.

The danger of being exposed by RTI requests has rattled corrupt government officials and their associates in civil society.

Sondarva was the 67th RTI activist to be killed since 2005, according to figures maintained by the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI) in New Delhi. The murders are part of a pattern of threats, assault and harassment. More than 400 such attacks and threats have been reported across India, CHRI’s statistics show.

Most of these murders have occurred in smaller towns and villages, Venkatesh Nayak, a programme co-ordinator for the multinational NGO, told The National.

The presence of law enforcement in rural India is weak and patchy. “In a city, you can reach a police station in 15 or 20 minutes,” Mr Nayak said. “In a village, you may have to drive for many kilometres to get to the nearest police station, and even then a constable may not be on duty.”

Smaller communities are also more intimate, Mr Nayak pointed out. When Sondarva filed his RTI request, word would have travelled quickly to others in the village — including those who risked being exposed.

Conversely, the size of these villages and towns makes it easy to pinpoint attackers. In 2011, Mr Nayak recounted, an activist named Ram Vilas Singh, living in a village in Bihar, had filed an RTI request to ask why three criminals facing murder charges had not been arrested.

“The murderers and the local policemen were buying their vegetables from the same vegetable seller every day, and he wanted to know what the police was doing to apprehend them,” Mr Nayak said.

The three men shot Singh dead in broad daylight and in front of his family. They were identified and arrested.

The murder of RTI activists is “a subset of the murders of so many people who fight corruption”, said Shailesh Gandhi, who served nearly four years as one of India’s information commissioners.

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Read more: India’s anti-corruption letter writer signs off

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The Central Information Commission, in which Mr Gandhi served, is a government agency that monitors the implementation of the RTI Act and adjudicates complaints when RTI requests yield no results.

During his time with the commission, Mr Gandhi said, he often heard the view within the government that people misused the RTI process “to get information with which they could then blackmail others”.

“But that’s a very small percentage. Maybe 1 per cent of all requests are like that,” he said. “To paint all RTI activists with that brush only creates an atmosphere in which they are the bad guys, that they should be eliminated. That’s what causing a lot of these attacks and murders.”

Mr Nayak believes that the government ought to provide protection to RTI activists who feel threatened. Two days before his death, Sondarva had posted his apprehensions about his safety on Facebook, he said.

“There are always telephonic threats and messages, and these days you can track all this,” Mr Nayak said. “It shouldn’t be hard to sift false claims from real concerns about safety.”

Mr Gandhi worried, however, that it would become impractical for overburdened police forces to provide such security, and that police protection would — through corrupt means — be given to people who did not deserve it. “I’m 99 per cent sure that the rogues will end up with this security.”

The solution lies in even more transparency, he said.

“If someone gets attacked or killed, the information commissions should put all information requested in the public domain instantly,” he said.

“Then, in an ideal world, the guilty or the corrupt would say: ‘Now I have to find another way of handling this.’”