In India, deadly backlash against freedom of information activists
Activists in India have been hospitalized or even killed as they tap the 2005 freedom of information act to expose government corruption.
New Delhi, India
When Ajay Kumar asked New Delhi authorities last fall why a local politician had authorized the construction of private houses and shops on public land, he didn’t imagine the question would land him in the hospital.Skip to next paragraph
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The activist had inquired using India’s 2005 Right to Information (RTI) Act, which allows any citizen to ask for information from any level of government, from village leaders to the office of the prime minister. It presents a cultural sea change in India, where for more than 60 years state bureaucrats have acted more like colonial masters than servants of the people.
Mr. Kumar was stonewalled by the public information officer at the Municipal Corporation of Delhi, so he followed procedure and appealed to a higher-level public information office in the MCD. When he still heard nothing back, he went to the federal authorities, the Central Information Commission, which directed the MCD together with the police to jointly inspect the property.
But when Kumar arrived on site in January, he was attacked by a mob of two dozen that backed the local politician.
“Neither the police nor the people helped me,” says Kumar, who was beaten in the head repeatedly by an iron rod, leaving him unconscious and bleeding profusely. Kumar is now pursuing the matter in court.
Despite the attack, Kumar says, “RTI is the only tool that can bring an end to a corruption in India. Previously there was no point in asking [for information] because the applications were not replied to. At least now, since 2005, these public authorities are in some way compelled to answer queries of the public. It is a starting point.”
Kumar is optimistic that he will one day see justice, but critics say attacks like these are becoming increasingly common. In the past two months two respected information activists have been killed, and reports are emerging of many others who are threatened, bullied, and intimidated to silence their inquiries into government misconduct.
Attacks will likely increase
The RTI Act is among the most robust for information seekers around the world, and its strength is becoming clear in the backlash against people seeking to expose corruption.
"What has happened with the RTI Act is that it is threatening people in power,” says Colin Gonzalves, a Supreme Court lawyer and director of the New Delhi-based Human Rights Law Network. “We cannot underestimate how hostile the administration is to the implementation to this Act – not just the politicians but also the judiciary. RTI empowers people to say that the administration is the servant of the people that you are answerable to us. The physical attacks on the people I think are going to increase over the years."
In rural areas, the act is often utilized to uncover scams involving federal- and state-funded initiatives to provide employment, housing, food, and other services to the poorest segments of society. “You ask for a list of beneficiaries," says prominent New Delhi-based RTI activist Arvind Kejriwal. "Then you check that list and find out that many peope are dead and the list is bogus.”