In April, the government of India proposed amendments to the RTI Act, one of the most empowering pieces of legislation inherited from the UPA era. The most controversial amendment pertained to Rule 12. It would allow the withdrawal of an application in case of the applicant’s death, making the job of those who file RTIs even more risky.
The RTI activists are already exposed to violence, all the more so as the Whistle Blowers Protection Act (2011) is not implemented. Sixty-nine activists have been killed, according to the National Campaign for People’s Right to Information. Besides, the NCPRI presents on its website the case of 130 RTI activists who have been victims of assault and 170 others who are victims of harrassment. Of the 268 cases whose location is known, 100 belong to rural India, a clear sign that the RTI has also been owned in the village.
The states where one finds the largest number of casualties are not those of the BIMARU belt known for law and order problems, but rich states. On the podium stand Maharashtra, Gujarat and Karnataka with, respectively, 13, 13 and 7 murders, 31, 14 and 11 cases of assault and 36, 14 and 12 cases of harrassment. The fact that the rich states are the most dangerous ones for RTI activists is not surprising since they mostly fight against the appropriation of public goods by predatory and vested interests, which are comparatively stronger in affluent provinces. The nature of the RTI activist’s work is revealing of the character of corruption in India today.
Problems pertaining to land, illegal construction and property disputes are the root cause of most of the cases. Seventeen murders of RTI activists, 32 assaults and 31 cases of harrassment are related to such issues. Then come conflicts due to government schemes (including MGNREGA), either because those who should have benefitted from them have not, or because of embezzlement at the local level. The third category that is also well represented is made of illegal mining, including the sand mafia’s activities.
The RTI activists fight for their rights and/or those of others, but they are hardly protected by the police and judiciary. Cases have been filed for only 137 murders, assaults and harrassment (out of 369). No action has taken place in 141 cases. (No information is available on the status of 91 cases). And where action has taken place, it has resulted in conviction and sending to jail of only six people so far (justice is delayed in many pending cases). This impunity creates the conditions of more violence against the RTI activists and has made the revision of Rule 12 even more problematic.
However, if vested interests and the state are so afraid of the RTI activists, it is because of their relative effectiveness. The number of RTI applications continues to grow. While it had already reached 7.55 lakh in 2014-2015, it rose by 22.67 per cent or 2.21 lakh in 2015-2016. A study conducted by the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI) reveals that 27.2 per cent (47.66 lakh) of the total RTIs filed between 2005 and 2015 was submitted to the different ministries and departments under the Centre. Maharashtra finishes a close second with 26.40 per cent (46.26 lakh) of the applications and Karnataka third with 11.83 per cent (20.73 lakh) of the applications. Punjab, Haryana and Himachal Pradesh received just 4.61 per cent of the applications.
These applications cover a wide range of issues and even if no action is taken, the media often publicise the cases and give bad publicity to the offending bureaucrats, industrialists or politicians. In fact, some of the most dedicated RTI activists are journalists and the reasons why small-town journalists are murdered, assaulted and harrassed are similar to those affecting the RTI activists. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists and the Indian branch of the International Federation of Journalists, the number of journalists who have been assassinated has risen from 2 in 2014 to 6 in 2016 and, according to the CPJ website “In the 27 cases of journalists murdered for their work in India since CPJ began keeping records in 1992, there have been no convictions”.
The RTI activists not only expose corrupt practices and crimes, but also provide alternative leadership at the local level. Some of them have become community mobilisers and have been elected sarpanch. The RTI Act has offered space to young Dalits, Adivasis and members of the minorities who would have been (more) helpless otherwise. In this process, they’ve been helped by NGOs whose leaders — not only from the intelligentsia, but also from the SMEs world — have toured villages to initiate them into the art of filling an RTI form. The role of “RTI clinics”, often in the form of itinerant vans and helplines, has been key.
Now, besides violent reactions and the amendment of Rule 12, the RTI community is facing new challenges. First, in some states, Information Commissions are burdened with huge pendencies. In UP, they have crossed the 48,000 mark. The number of applications filed could easily decrease: If the frequently asked questions were identified, it would not be difficult to proactively disclose information for those questions (which is in tune with Section 4(1)(b) of the RTI Act, 2005). But delays and backlogs are also due to the fact that the job of Information Commissioner has become a post-retirement sinecure for former bureaucrats who do not necessarily feel the urge of idealism.
The attitude of the government of India is another big challenge. Some of its agencies refuse to disclose the required information. The PMO, where the rejection rate is very high, is a case in point. The Commission does not have enough power for getting responses to its questions and does not have the mechanisms for following up on whether its orders have been complied with.
Thirdly, the Information Officers do not necessarily get the right training, at least the updated information which would make their action more appropriate. Universities could include the RTI Act in their curriculum and offer not only degrees or modules for credit, but also continuing training for helping this major achievement to remain relevant.
But the urgent issue concerns the risk of the amendments formulated in April (including those related to Rule 12) to be transformed into law. If they go through, it would send disturbing signals to the defenders of human rights.