In the country’s first ever jansunwai (public hearing) of this kind, held in Patna recently to address the 20 gruesome killings of right to information (RTI) activists in Bihar, it was amply clear that the law enforcing authorities and the state government are totally indifferent to pursuing investigations and convicting the culprits.
Hence, after patiently hearing the heart-wrenching stories of family members of the slain whistle-blowers who had come from different parts of Bihar, the organisers comprising several social forums, have made two major demands. One, is the constitution of a judicial commission to ensure that investigations into these cases take place in a fair and objective manner and; to officially give them the status of human rights defenders.
The other demands to the Bihar state government include:
• Quick disposal of cases that are languishing between 2010 and now
• Formation of a state level whistle-blower protection law and any other mechanism for protecting those who expose corruption. Presently, Parliament passed such a law in 2014; however, till date the central government has failed to operationalise the law
• In all cases of threats, attacks or killings of RTI users, the state information commission (SIC) must immediately direct the relevant public authorities to disclose and give wide publicity to all the RTIs and replies the person was pursuing. Giving wide publicity to the information being pursued by people who are being threatened or attacked, potentially acts as a deterrent against such attacks in the future, as perpetrators get the message that, rather than covering up the matter, any attack would invite even greater public scrutiny.
Much of the information being sought by people who were killed was such that it should have, in any case, been proactively provided under section 4 of the RTI Act. Bihar SIC should undertake periodic monitoring and audits of proactive disclosures by public authorities.
• In all cases of attacks or killings of RTI activists, the departments from which they were seeking information must be made to undergo special audit of all schemes and financial matters which were being pursued. This must be monitored by the state social audit unit.
As family members relived the horrors of the day their near and dear one was brutally killed, mostly in broad daylight, their tenacity to pursue the cause was admirable. The jury observed,
“Most of the RTI whistle-blowers did not stop pursuing the information and exposing corruption even after facing many death threats by criminals as stated by family members. They said that, it is a deliberate attempt to kill the RTI Act as people, in fear, will automatically stop asking for information due to these killings.’’
Families remembering their loved ones asked a serious question of accountability from the government to serve justice. They rued the fact that the death of their breadwinner exposed the lawlessness in Bihar.
Family members also shared that police are helping the criminals in the investigations and are making all efforts to weaken the cases. Often, they bully the family members and witnesses to change their statements and give serious life threats to further pressurise them. Hence, family members of RTI whistle-blowers are still living in fear.
The jansunwai was chaired by a jury consisting of eminent activist Aruna Roy (MKSS), Vinita Deshmukh (journalist) and Amitabh Kumar Das (former IPS). The public hearing was organised jointly by National Campaign of People’s Right to Information (NCPRI), SAFAR, Jan Jagran Shakti Sangathan, Right to Food Campaign, Bihar and National Alliance of People’s Movements (NAPM).
States Anjali Bharadwaj, noted RTI activist and one of the organisers, “The murders of more than 20 RTI activists over the past ten years is a very disturbing trend in Bihar. This must immediately stop. The people who have been murdered were fighting for public causes and were pursuing transparency in the functioning of PDS, NREGA, anganwadi centres, illegally operating clinics and so on. Most of the RTIs were exposing the irregularities and corruption. The intimidation and harassment of RTI activists should stop immediately.’’
Lawyers were also present in the jansunwai and assured the family members of providing free legal aid for all the family members of victims. Several political leaders across party lines too attended the event and assured intervention. Information commissioner Tripurari Sharan also attended the hearing and presented the point of view of the commission.
More than one hundred activists including Nikhil Dey, Ashish Ranjan, Mahendra Yadav, Rakshita Swami, Anindita Adhikari, Shiv Prakash Rai, Rupesh, Amrita Johri, Kapil Agarwal, Ghalib and Jitendra Paswan attended the public hearing and talked about the status of RTI implementation in the state.
(Vinita Deshmukh is consulting editor of Moneylife. She is also the convener of the Pune Metro Jagruti Abhiyaan. She is the recipient of prestigious awards like the Statesman Award for Rural Reporting, which she won twice in 1998 and 2005 and the Chameli Devi Jain award for outstanding media person for her investigation series on Dow Chemicals. She co-authored the book “To The Last Bullet - The Inspiring Story of A Braveheart - Ashok Kamte” with Vinita Kamte and is the author of “The Mighty Fall”.)