RTI activists falsely accused, assaulted

While the government at one end time and again attempts to deflate the Sunshine Act, at the other end harassment to RTI activists too never ceases

Deliberately under-staffing State Information Commissions (SICs); PIOs citing Section 8 with unfailing regularity as an excuse not to part with information; assaulting RTI activists; tarnishing their reputation are some of the ways being sought to deflate the RTI (Right to Information) Act. 

Case I: Pankti Jog is a prominent member of the Mahiti Adhikar Gujarat Pahel (MAGP), an Ahmedabad based RTI organisation, renowned for its helpline service that has facilitated thousands in the state to file RTI applications and get guidance in RTI related matters. MAGP’s mobile van service that spreads RTI awareness in villages has also helped in RTI literacy in the state.

Last week, she was accused of indirectly having terrorist links, as per the submission made by the Public Information Officer (PIO) of the Department of Forest & Environment to the State Information Commission. 

States Pankti, “`In one of my RTI applications filed with the Department Of Forest And Environment way back in 2009, I had sought copies of its communication with the ministry of environment and forest regarding permission given to a multi-national company for the expansion of its pipelines which would cut through the reserved forests of the treasured marine national park in Jamnagar district.  I was surprised at the submission made by the PIO to the State Information Commission that, “if information is given to Pankti Jog then it could land in the hands of a terrorist, thus the info cannot be given.” Due to delay in reply, Pankti had filed a second appeal with the SIC which had asked the PIO to give reasons for not providing information.

According to Pankti, the PIO who denied her information for nearly two years argued before the SIC last week that blasts and terrorist attacks occured due to sensitive information made available to terrorists. Pankti, who amplified this unjustified stand taken by the PIO, went viral on email stating that, “I think I have to tell the government …my name is Pankti and I am not a terrorist…” The result? The PIO retracted his statement. The matter will come for hearing before the SIC early next week.

However, it is important to understand that information relating to a powerful MNC was kept in abeyance for nearly two years. This particular issue relates to the expansion of a pipeline belonging to Essar the group which is to cut through the marine national park, to facilitate expansion of the pipeline but it would mean disturbing the reserved forest area. Hence, Pankti had also filed a petition in the Gujarat High Court besides filing a RTI Application.

The RTI application dates back to 28 April 2009. The information sought was: “a certified copy of the report submitted by the committee for the use of forest land by Essar Bulk Terminal in Jamnagar; certified copy of the letter/communication to director, environment, sent by the ministry of environment and forests regarding Coastal Regulation Zone Clearance for the proposed jetties and sea water intake and effluent release facility for the thermal power project of Essar Power Gujarat (EPGL) of Salaya creek at Jamnagar district and; certified copy of the study reports done by National Institute of Oceanography Goa on Marine Environment Management & Strategies for Gulf of Kutch.”

States Pankti, The communication between state and central government plays a key role in making us understand the permissions given to the MNC and whether environmental laws are being violated. However, in the garb of ‘security’, the entire information was denied to me. The government has the right to withhold information pertaining to sensitive coastal security, and can give me partial information. Instead, the PIO and the Appellate Authority (AA) raised questions about my locus standi in the project area and also argued there is no public interest in this issue. It is unfortunate and shameful that the PIO of the department of forest & environment at Gandhinagar is more interested in protecting the vested interest of a MNC rather than protecting environment.”

 Case 2: In Hardoi, UP, IITian and RTI activist beaten up

This incident is not directly related to a RTI application but is about a young IIT student and a budding RTI activist who works tirelessly for RTI applicants and wants to remain anonymous. He files RTI applications on their behalf. His name is Sangh Priya Rahul, a third year student of IIT Kharagpur and one of the managers of the unique organisation ‘RTI Anonymous.’ (www.getup4change.org).

RTI Anonymous is run by a group of young technologists from the USA and India and was born after the brutal killing of RTI activist Shehla Masood. The website states: “`We are concerned that many of our fellow citizens who have filed RTI applications have been routinely targeted and eliminated by vested interests. We just can’t let this continue” and hence have taken it upon themselves to file RTI application on behalf of citizens who are afraid to come out in the open.

Last week, Rahul visited his home town Harnoi in Uttar Pradesh (UP) for a short holiday and decided to renew his driving license. When he approached the window where they click a computerized photograph of the applicant, he was asked to pay a bribe of Rs100. Rahul refused saying there’s no such rule. The RTO official at the window insisted he part with Rs100 as everyone else does so. To this, Rahul stated that he would file a RTI application to find out irregularities being done at the RTO. He also asked all the applicants who had come there to seek driving licenses, not to pay the Rs100. 

At this point, says Rahul, “about 20 RTO officers physically assaulted me and I was left bleeding. As I lay on the ground, I was asked again whether I was ready to pay the bribe. When I refused again, I was mercilessly kicked by the officers.’’ In the meanwhile, Rahul had turned on the voice mail of his cell phone and recorded their demand for bribe. You can listen to this on the YouTube.

Thereafter, Rahul visited the police station to register an FIR against the RTO officers but the police refused to lodge an FIR. After local media coverage, the FIR was filed. Says Rahul, “my fight for corruption has become stronger.”

In the meanwhile, Anand Sharma, one of the founders of RTI Anonymous is campaigning for Rahul, urging citizens to sign the online petition, in order to pressurize local officials to take action against the culprits.

Here’s how Anand has used social networking site and technology to campaign from overseas:

A Facebook Welcome page (Justice for Sangh Priya Rahul) has been created 

A webpage has been created that updates news and progress of the case

An online petition has been created. Says Anand, “every time people click and ‘sign’ this petition, an email will be sent to the official email address of the following four people. The idea is flood them with a deluge of emails and hopefully, that will gain their attention

a) RK Saxena(OSD to the state governor )

b) RC.Misra (secretary - personnel) MOP&PG, New Delhi

c) Director, Dept of I&P.R(Govt of Uttar Pradesh) 

d) Uttar Pradesh Lokayaukta

Also, a video of Rahul has been uploaded on YouTube. The 1.56 minute video describes the entire sequence of events by Rahul himself

(Vinita Deshmukh is consulting editor of Moneylife. She is also an RTI activist and 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. She can be reached at [email protected])

Comments
R Nandy
1 decade ago
Rahul was not beaten up because he is a RTI activist.He was beaten up for
opposing corruption.RTI is a relatively new act but people were also earlier
assaulted/killed for filing/fighting cases against interested parties.This
only points to a deeper mailase of impunity in our country,were the high
and the mightly get away with anything.I don't see any permanent solution unless the general law and order situation improves.With the current law and order scenario a proper whistleblower/witness protection can't also be implemented.

The only saving grace is that the corrupt also are not so well organised and have limited geographical/political influence.
P M Ravindran
Replied to R Nandy comment 1 decade ago
So long as the ICs and judges are corrupt it doesn't matter whether anybody else is corrupt or organised. The law stands dumped!
Umang
1 decade ago
I am based in US, there are many people like me who can file RTI from here, we can in turn email the documents or upload it. No local people can target us here for filing RTIs.
P M Ravindran
Replied to Umang comment 1 decade ago
So nice of you. But practically difficult, isn't it?
Kumar Shastri
Replied to Umang comment 1 decade ago
Will definitely keep you posted,thanks..Most of the govt depts are yet to have the online filing in place.

Kumar shastri
1 decade ago
Good case study of RTI and its implementation in our country. Much needs to be done,the act on paper looks rosy but in actual terms not much of help to the citizens of this country. More teeth needed to the act. In the present form,more whistle blowers will be trashed by goons. What use of a act,which is more of a threat than a security.
P M Ravindran
Replied to Kumar shastri comment 1 decade ago
While it can always be argued that the Act requires more teeth, the problem is that whatever teeth is already available is not being used at all. The failure to impose the mandatory penalties under Sec 20 the Act is blatant subversion of the law and the information commissioners have to be punished for treason. Sec 19 of the RTI Act even provides for compensating the applicant/appellant.
Kumar Shastri
Replied to P M Ravindran comment 1 decade ago
Agree with your comments made,now the question is how are we going to enforce the same,this is where a effective and a strong Lokpal / Lokayukta would have done wonders.From my personal experience with the G.H.M.C of Hyderabad, you ask one information and they give you irrelevant information. This is done willfully or on purpose i presume.

Next is under staffing issue, in my state of Andhra Pradesh, the Information Commissioner has not been given the adequate manpower to do his job effectively, and hence the functioning is hampered. And the political parties take pride in competing with one and other saying that they were the ones to get the RTI act. They have brought it and left it ,there ends the matter.
P M Ravindran
Replied to Kumar Shastri comment 1 decade ago
I shall still refute this argument about shortage of staff. If an IC has been provided one clerk that should suffice. It is for the IC to go through the complaint (practically less than 1 minute!) and 2nd appeal (may be about 5 minutes!) and decide what should be done. If the info sought is disclosable it needs just a one line order to the PIO to provide the info and another line can be added to provide reasons why the penalty should not be imposed. In fact these can be printed forms where only the name and address of the PIO has to be filled in. Copy of this should be sent to the complainant/appellant also. Then mark it in his official dairy to ensure compliance.

Instead of this what we find is that these idiots/traitors are indulging is all gimmicks, wasting public money, time and finally subverting the law itself. And all of them, to cover up their reprehensible conduct, have the clerks copy the contents of the application, response of the PIO, 1st appeal, response of the FAA in the order and then add their own two sentences as the final order!
P M Ravindran
1 decade ago
Please, for heavens sake, do not spread the misinformation about understaffing the information commissions. It is blatant subversion of the law that is happening in almost all the commissions. All the information that has been provided under the RTI Act and even those that have been denied speak volumes for the treacherous nature of our public servants including those in the judiciary. Either Anna or maoists should succeed to bring these thugs, scoundrels and traitors in our offices of governance!
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