On March 20th, 38-year old Poipynhun Majaw was killed after receiving multiple blows from a wrench to his head in Meghalaya’s East Jaintia Hills district, a prominent mining area rich in coal and limestone. The motive behind his death is yet to be confirmed by the district police, but it is likely tied to his investigation into the arrangements between the leaders of the Jaintia Hills district council and cement manufacturing firms.
Majaw’s death, while tragic, is not surprising. The Right to Information (RTI) activist revealed last year that the district council had allowed cement companies to mine in the area without adequate licenses. As the head of the Jaintia Youth Federation, a social activist group, for six years, he rallied the district’s youth around a number of issues such as electoral fraud and environmental damage from business activities.
Like many activists and journalists in the country who have used the RTI law to expose corruption, Majaw was a sitting duck. There was no adequate law to protect him or to prevent the personal details on his RTI application from falling into the wrong hands.
The Right to Information Act
The Right to Information Act , ranked 5th best in the world in terms of strength according to the Centre for Law and Democracy, allows Indian citizens to request information from public institutions and the government.
Since October 2005, when the RTI Act was implemented, the deaths of 74 activists have been documented in India, according toattacksonrtiusers.org, a tracker set up by the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI). An additional 164 activists have reported assaults while 180 have been threatened. A significant portion of these activists had exercised this right and asked for information, only to be harassed and in some cases, silenced permanently.
Around 68 of the deaths are outright murders, while the rest have been ruled suicides. John Mascrinaus, a data analyst at the CHRI, says that 16 of these murders have taken place in Maharashtra, 12 and eight have occurred in Gujarat and Karnataka, respectively, while six each have taken place in Bihar and UP.
And what of the stories of the slain activists? They have been consigned to the archives of the internet, mere statistics in a country where the truth is better left uncovered and cold-blooded killings are regular fixtures of the daytime news.
Their stories bear revisiting. A list of their names is published on the CHRI tracker and here are a few cases:-
Rajesh Savaliya, 31. Killed on July 19th, 2017.
Savaliya was still alive when he was found near a temple on National Highway 8 in the Navsari district of Gujarat. Despite being rushed the hospital, he succumbed to his head injuries later in the night. Savaliya had been receiving threatening calls for the preceding month after filing multiple complaints with the District Education Officer about all the schools in the area that had been operating without necessary licenses. In the process, he raised the ire of a consortium of owners running the schools. The Indian Express was the only national daily to report on Savilaya’s death.
Bhupendra Vira, 72. Killed on October 15th, 2016.
A father of three and member of a local citizens activist group, Vira was shot while watching television at his home in Santa Cruz East, Mumbai. He was killed over a land encroachment dispute. Vira had won a number of demolition orders for four illegal residences constructed by his landlord Razzaq Khan, a former member of the municipal corporation. The documents obtained through Vira’s RTI application had shown that his land was being unlawfully encroached upon. Khan and his son were subsequently arrested for the murder.
Yallalinga Kuruba, 17. Killed on January 11th, 2014.
The body of the first-year college student was found on the railway tracks on the periphery of Koppal, a district in northern Karnataka. On January 6th, Kuruba had told a local news channel about the corruption that was hindering the implementation of government schemes in his village. He specifically cited the lack of roads and drainage systems. On January 10th, he reportedly filed an RTI to ask for details about the development work being subcontracted under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee scheme from the local Panchayat Development Officer. He was subsequently chased and killed by members of a gang that was loyal to Balan Gowda, a gram panchayat member.
Ravinder Balwani, 61. Killed on April 26th, 2012.
Balwani, a member of Parivartan, an NGO led by Arvind Kejriwal, was hit by a car in the Vasant Kunj neighbourhood in Delhi on April 23rd and died three days later after succumbing to his head injuries. Balwani had been receiving threats after filing a corruption complaint against a former official at Delhi Transco Ltd, the state transmission utility for the NCR region. He had also filed a complaint against the Delhi Electricity Regulatory Commission over the revision of tariffs.The cases reportedly involved a number of senior officials in the power sector. The perpetrators of the crime were never identified.
Shashidhar Mishra, 35. Killed on February 14th, 2010.
The street hawker and father of four was shot by some men on motorcycles in the Begusarai district of Bihar. Mishra, who was affectionately called Khabri Lal (news man) by his peers, had filed a number of complaints against panchayat and district officials. By the time he died, Mishra had filed close to a 1,000 RTI applications. His applications covered a range of issues, including the mistreatment of animals at a local dairy, unlicensed shops outside the railway station as well as land purchases and contracts given by local council officials- the latter being the last request he filed.
What needs to be done?
The deaths of the aforementioned people should not be in vain. The ability to exercise one’s right to information is an essential component of democracy and should be preserved.
The personal details of RTI applicants need to be kept secure. The anonymous filing of RTI applications should be enabled. Additionally, applicants could also be required to furnish their email details as opposed to their address and mobile numbers.
There needs to be a law to protect whistleblowers. The amended Whistle Blowers Protection (WBP) bill has been stalled in the upper house of India’s Parliament since 2015, when the NDA government moved to water down the original act with the removal of a clause that prevents whistleblowers from being prosecuted under the Official Secrets Act (OSA).
This outdated anti-espionage act prohibits the disclosure of state secrets. In its attempt to preserve information that relates to national security, which the RTI act disallows applicants from obtaining in the first place, the government is compromising the personal security of its citizens. The proposed amendments to the Whistle Blower Protection act need to be withdrawn.
Finally, the government authorities need to do a better job of disclosing information at the national, state and district level. A section of the RTI act calls for the “voluntary disclosure of information” by authorities. This includes all information related to government schemes and business licenses. This is precisely the information that Yallalinga Kuruba, mentioned above, was asking for.
Out of the total number of RTIs filed to date, estimated at 24.9 million by CHRI, a vast majority are denied for reasons such as a “lack of information”, calling into question the purpose of the act itself.
However, the act is genuinely capable of affecting change, as demonstrated by success stories such as Chandigarh’s decision to become a smoke free city as a result of RTI petitions and the discovery that some funds used for the Commonwealth Games were actually earmarked for Scheduled Castes. The government therefore has the responsibility of ensuring the safety of RTI applicants so the act can continue to be used to promote transparency, check corruption and ultimately, improve this country. Read More