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.

Manish Swarup/AP
National Congress Party Sonia Gandhi and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh are at odds over the groundbreaking freedom of information act that many say is the first step to breaking down widespread corruption problems in 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.

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.”

According to a study published last July by the National Campaign for People’s Right to Information, and funded in part by the Google Foundation, in the first two-and-a-half years since RTI went into effect about 400,000 applications for information were filed from rural areas and 1.6 million from urban areas.

While much of the information requested ought to be public in the first place, like the size of a particular budget for a school or road, or why a particular applicant received a job or promotion, most government bureaucrats in India habitually keep such matters under lock and key.

Right to information – on paper

With the RTI Act, failure to furnish applicants their information within 30 days can result in steep fines. This week one RTI applicant was awarded 100,000 rupees, or about $2,200, by the Central Information Commission in compensation for delays.

At a meeting in the capital of the poverty-stricken northern Indian state of Bihar last November, 49 activists spoke about fighting trumped-up arrest warrants and other attempts to silence their efforts. None of the warrants have stood up under scrutiny, they claim. On Feb. 14 in Bihar, well-known RTI activist Shashidhar Mishra was shot dead by unidentified gunmen on motorcycles at the entrance of his home. He had been working to expose local welfare schemes.

A month before, in the tech hub of Pune, a couple hours outside Mumbai, another activist, Satish Shetty, was killed while on his morning walk. Mr. Shetty had a record of exposing land scams in his area. Shetty had received threats on his life and requested police protection, though none was provided. The High Court in Bombay asked the state government to investigate the killing.

The upswing of violence has dire implications to Shailesh Gandhi, a commissioner with the Central Information Commission, the country’s highest authority for RTI applications.

“It tells me that the rule of law is almost absent. The truth is that powerful people feel there is no law,” Mr. Gandhi says.

Gandhi and his handful of interns, whom he pays from his own pocket, managed to go through almost 6,000 files last year. In the past 14 months he’s penalized 120 public information offices for not providing information in a timely fashion, or at all. He hopes to start cracking the whip even harder, he says. “Penalties are important.”

Last month headlines blazed across India that the New Delhi High Court ruled in favor of a RTI applicants who sought information about the office of India’s Supreme Court Chief Justice, such as his personal assets and decisions relating the appointment of lower-court judges. On Monday, the Supreme Court moved to challenge the order.

And just this last week, a disagreement between Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and the leader of the ruling National Congress Party Sonia Gandhi became public after the Mr. Singh advocated amending RTI Act, something activists strongly oppose, fearing it might be watered down.

Shailesh Gandhi agrees: "I am 100 percent convinced that any changes in the Act would be to the citizen's detriment."

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