India freedom of information activist files 500 requests, despite threats

Despite an increase in attacks on activists who use the India freedom of information act, Kheema Ram has filed nearly 500 requests for public data and exposed a growing list of government scandals.

Activists who use India's equivalent of the freedom of information law to expose government corruption are finding themselves under increasing attack.

Kheema Ram is one of them, but the veteran campaigner has weathered the violence to become a legend in the state of Rajasthan for his prolific use of his country's Right to Information Act.

In his estimation Mr. Ram has filed nearly 500 RTI applications in his crusade against graft and injustice. He works for a local workers' rights nongovernmental organization known by its Hindi acronym MKSS. The group played a central role in campaigning for the national RTI Act, although most of its 17 employees focus on other issues.

"I am a Dalit [low-caste], I have been discriminated against," says Ram, a young father of three with an eighth-grade education. "I want to use the law to fight this discrimination."

It wasn't long ago when Ram would be denied a haircut from the village barber, would have to use a separate cup at the local tea shop and wash it himself, and was refused water from a community water tank.

Uncovering scandals

Over the years, request by request, Ram has outed government employees who used fake caste certificates to secure jobs reserved for lower-caste applicants. He had the manager of a local cooperative bank sent to jail for embezzling funds. He disclosed that male and female manual laborers were paid different rates for a school construction project.

The list goes on. Ram discovered widespread fraud in a government pension scheme after a substitute postman came to his village to deliver a money order to beneficiaries and, looking for their addresses, asked Ram for directions. Ram saw that on the list were pensioners who had long died. When he used an RTI application to obtain a list of all people listed under the scheme, he discovered many more names of people deceased.

Nikhil Dey, a founding member of MKSS, calls Ram a "craftsman of the RTI."

"He has seen the power of it being a great tool to pry open the shut doors of governance," he says. "He traces the paper trail... and he follows through, sometimes for years."

Ram stores his hundreds of files in a 4-foot-tall aluminum tank in the back of his room, to protect them from the rats that scurry across the floor of his bare concrete house. The yellowing files with their purple stamps of officialdom tell the history of petty theft and fraud.

Making enemies

For all his muckraking, Ram has been beaten up to 30 times, he says, sometimes by the public officials he's exposed or by people tied to them. Once his hand was broken, but otherwise the incidents have involved scrapes and scratches. Some of his enemies have filed cases against him, all of which have been dismissed.

"Filing an RTI is like walking on the edge of a sword. There is always some sort of violence – a threat or a fistfight," when filing an application that exposes corruption, says Ram. In February a carload of men came to his house in the night hurling sticks at his home and shouting abuses. Ram keeps dogs in his front yard for protection.

Does the rabblerousing bother Shanta, his wife? Absolutely.

"Whether I ask him to do it or not, he's going to keep doing it," she says.

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