Barely two months back, Right to Information (RTI) activist Bipin Agarwal, a resident of Motihari town of Bihar, was shot dead on 24 September 2021 in broad daylight on a busy road by two assailants astride a motorcycle. Last week, a young RTI activist, Avinash Jha, all of 23 years old, was brutally killed in Benipatti town of Madhubani district in Bihar. His half-burnt body was found on the side of a highway four days after his death.
Avinash Jha, also known as Buddhinath Jha, was also a journalist. He had been lately exposing the deadly scam of fake nursing homes sprouting and operational in his region. A couple of days before his death, he had put up a post on the Facebook of the local newspaper
he was working for– regarding the district investigation officer having slammed Rs50,000 fine on four errant nursing homes.
The officer ordered the closure of the nursing homes within a week and asked their respective directors to clarify on the scandal. In fact, he had uploaded the order on Facebook. Two days later, Avinash was allegedly kidnapped and done to death.
Very strangely, his last Facebook post on his account (Avi Avinash Jha) was about death.
Mr Agarwal and Mr Jha are two more examples of whistle-blowers fighting for social causes and are not using the RTI Act to blackmail someone.
Mr Jha’s brother Chandrashekhar told the media that Avinash was kidnapped because he exposed the ‘hospital mafia’ and had enough evidence against them. He had filed many RTI applications regarding the fake nursing homes in his district that played with people’s lives.
He also stated that his brother was trying to bust the nexus of the private hospital operators and local government authorities allowing the nursing homes to operate.
Candle marches and protests have been going on in the streets of Benapatti by citizens and RTI activists of the area.
A young journalist and RTI activist, Saurav Das, who uses RTI particularly in COVID-19-related issues, tweeted recently about the killing.
The killing of Avinash Jha has also caught the attention of global non-government organisations (NGOs) that work on whistle-blowers’ safety issues.
The Press Emblem Campaign, the global media safety and right body, issued a statement,“...a 22 years old journalist and RTI activist named Buddhinath Jha (also known as Avinash Jha) was found dead in Madhubani district of Bihar in eastern India. Buddhinath used to report on many fake medical clinics operating in his locality. He is the sixth journalist killed this year in India.”
Alleging a big conspiracy behind his sudden disappearance, Chandrashekhar told the police that, for years, his brother had been trying to bust the nexus of private hospital operators, staff and authorities scamming the people of the district due to which he was on the radar.
Chandrashekhar named various hospitals and nursing homes that he alleged were a part of the nexus. The hospitals he named are: Maa Janki Sewa Sadan Ambedkar Chowk Benipatti, Shiva Poly Clinic Makiya, Sudama Health Care Dhakjari, Anshu Kasht and Center Dhakjari, Sonali Hospital Benipatti, Aradhana Health and Dental Care Clinic Benipatti, Jai Maa Kali Sewa Sadan Benipatti, RS Memorial Hospital Benipatti, Aljina Health Care Benipatti, Sanvi Hospital Nandibhoji Chowk, Ananya Nursing Home Benipatti and Anurag Health Care Center Benipatti.
In fact, since the implementation of the RTI Act in 2005, 91 RTI activists have been killed, 175 have been assaulted, 186 have been threatened and seven have died by suicide across the country.
Sanjoy Hazarika, international director of Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI), rightly stated in his Foreword in the book Life and death in the times of RTI that “perhaps it is not a profession, but it is a calling, which often comes with challenges and risks. For those who use and pursue RTI applications for the sake of administrative transparency or even personal understanding of an issue and better clarity put themselves at risk and in harm’s way by doing so. Not because they seek to abuse the law but because they seek to uphold it and uphold it robustly by in turn holding public servants and networks of powers and privilege accountable. The act of pressing for transparency itself has its roots in the Constitution of India, where the right to information is regarded as flowing from Article 19(1)(a), which states that all citizens shall have the right to freedom of speech and expression.”
In the same book, the author of this column, along with another senior journalist Prasannakumar Keskar had researched that RTI activists in Maharashtra who were slain used the RTI Act for:
• exposing corruption in cooperative societies and irregularities in cooperative banks;
• unearthing land-grabbing and real estate scams involving the urban land mafia;
• opposing the construction-realtor mafia in towns and cities;
• exposing corruption and irregularities in granting building permissions by municipal corporations;
• exposing defections of municipal corporators from one political party to another through corrupt means;
• uncovering forgery of property records used for illicit gain;
• unearthing irregularities like diversion of food grains under the mid-day meal scheme meant for school children;
• unmasking the diversion of housing assistance benefits meant for poor families to ineligible persons;
• uncovering illegal takeover of sugar factories by politicians;
• exposing illegal sand mining;
• unearthing irregularities in the staffing and management of educational institutions;
• exposing irregularities in the disbursement of grants and hostel rooms for students from migrant families;
• protecting the rights and entitlements of pavement hawkers and vendors;
• laying bare irregularities in the transfer of key officials in civic bodies;
• exposing the misuse of public funds in repairing the ancestral home of a well-known freedom fighter;
• identifying truant employees of civic bodies;
• unearthing corruption in the repair and maintenance of sewer works; and
• exposing corruption in road repair and pavement construction works.
Indeed, many RTI users and activists are paying the price of such activism with their lives. The cost of demanding transparency, it seems, is much higher than the Rs10 application fee.
(Vinita Deshmukh is consulting editor of Moneylife and 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”.)