Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Is death gift for exposing corruption?

The Right to Information Act was expected to transform India and make it a more transparent nation. However off late what we have been witnessing is a rise in the number of deaths of RTI activists or Whistle Blowers which has made the entire nation react with shock and horror.

Is death the gift for exposing corruption, the RTI activists ask? The country has witnessed nearly 12 deaths of RTI activists in the last two years and the year 2010 alone has seen 8. Each one was killed for exposing corrupt practices and the law enforcement authorities say that these persons had too much to lose and hence they thought the best way was to do away with the person itself.

RTI activists are clear when they say that the government has not done enough to protect them and the time has come to act. In this article let us take a look at the existing acts to protect whistle blowers, the proposed laws, reactions from activists and also those persons who have lost their life while using the RTI Act.

The Right to Information Act which was introduced in the year 2005 states: An Act to provide for setting out the practical regime of right to information for citizens to secure access to information under the control of public authorities, in order to promote transparency and accountability in the working of every public authority, the constitution of a Central Information Commission and State Information Commissions and for matters connected therewith or incidental thereto.

Vivek Deveshwar is a prominent activist from Bangalore who is involved in conducting several RTI awareness campaigns. I am obviously shocked at the manner in which activists are being killed. It is more of a law and order issue and needs to be addressed. The biggest problem which the activists face is that the information is always leaked at some level. The source does not at all times maintain secrecy and ends up exposing the person who has sought the information. Before getting after the murderer, I feel that stringent laws ought to be introduced to punish those persons who disclose information about the activist in the first place.

I agree that there is a need to enhance protection, but any RTI activist cannot be given protection. There are few who apply for their personal information and such persons cannot be classified as activists and hence cannot be entitled for protection. It is those who expose corruption who need protection and the government ought to provide it. My persons advise is that if there is an issue then not just one person should be involved in exposing it. Let 100s of people come forward and seek the same information. This will deter the person in question since he cannot go around killing 100 people or threatening all of them. Another thing is that this issue should not just be limited to activists. Even the common man should come forward and file such applications. The government ought to take a lead in such matters and create more awareness regarding the same.

Malay Bhattacharyya, an activist from West Bengal says that the government is doing nothing to protect the activists. The Whistle Blowers act must be put in place so that there is more protection since these persons are involved in unearthing huge corruption cases. The corruption involves 2000 crores and the man in question finds it easy to finish the activist off since there is not much protection. Moreover he manages to get information about the activist easily and this is something that is causing a major concern. However there is one thing that I would bring to your notice and that is such incidents of activists being murdered has not deterred the rest of us and the movement will only grow stronger each day.

The statements by the above two activists makes it clear that the biggest concern is that these persons have no protection and there is no law protecting whistle blowers. In almost all cases the man revealing the identity of the whistle blower has gone unpunished and this is a major concern.

Let us now look at the status with regard to the protection of a whistle blower in India.

Who is a whistle blower?

The one who exposes corruption or a fraud is known as a whistle blower. It is these persons who are now seeking a protection act.

Status of whistle blowers act.

India currently is working on such a law and only recently cleared a bill to protect whistleblowers. This proposed legislation called the Public Interest Disclosure and Protection to Persons Making The Disclosure Bill, 2010, provides the Central Vigilance Commission to hand down harsh penalty to people revealing identity of whistleblowers. It would also be empowered to act against those who reveal the identity of a whistleblower and even those who threaten them.
This proposed legislation which is to be placed in Parliament also states that the CVC will not reveal the identity of the complainant and would not be allowed to investigate matters which would amount to sub judice.

Other countries with the same act:

The other countries which have a similar act are USA, UK and Norway. The US was the first to introduced such a law in the year 1989 itself while UK and Norway followed suit in the years 1998 and 2007.

Justice N Santhosh Hegde, Lokayukta of Karnataka who deals with corruption cases says that if quick action is not taken against such incidents then it is only a matter of time before it blows into a full fledged problem. There is a need to keep the identity of the whistle blower a secret and there is a need for a very strong law in this regard.

There is no need for a separate act on this and the same could be included in the Right to Information Act itself. Although there is a need to protect RTI activists it is the authority who must decide who should get protection. This should not turn into another sham where all activists seek protection and walk around with gun men behind them. The authority should assess the threat perception and only then grant protection.

Scope of the RTI Act:

This act is applicable to the whole of India except Jammu and Kashmir which is governed by a state level law. The act can be used against all constitutional authorities, the executive, legislature and the judiciary. Initially private bodies were excluded from this act by the Supreme Court of India in the landmark Sarbajit Roy versus DERC verdict said that privatised public utility companies will fall under the purview of this act.

However according this act is exempt from:

Information which would cause a breach of privilege of Parliament or the State Legislature

Information including commercial confidence, trade secrets or intellectual property

Information received in confidence from foreign Government;

Information which would endanger the life or physical safety of any person or identify the source of information or assistance given in confidence for law enforcement or security purposes;

Information which would impede the process of investigation or apprehension or prosecution of offenders

Cabinet papers including records of deliberations of the Council of Ministers, Secretaries and other officers;

Those who lost their lives:

Satish Shetty, 38, an RTI activist from Pune who had exposed land scams was shot dead when he was on his morning walk.

Lalit Kumar Mehta, 36 from Jharkhand had exposed corruption in the National Rural Employment Guarantee works and was murdered.

Amith Jethwa, RTI activist from Gujarat was killed in Ahmedabad near the Gujarat high court on July 20 after he filed a public interest litigation (PIL) against illegal mining in Gir forest region.

Arun Sawant who had filed many applications under the RTI in connction with the Badlapur Municipal Corporation of Badlapur was shot at.

Vishram Laxman Dodiya of Ahmedabad had filed an application under RTI to get details about the illegal electricity connection by Torrent Power. He was murdered shortly after a meeting with the officials of the company.

Dattatraya Patil of Kolhapur was killed when he exposed fake registrations of handloom societies through the RTI Act.

Vitthal Giteof Beed who was a farmer died in April this year when he exposed a scam run by a school which was being run by his own family.

Shashidhar Mishra of Barauni in Bihar lost his life while trying to expose corruption in local welfare schemes.

Venkatesh from Bangalore was killed when he exposed encroachment of government property. His death was considered to be an accident at first, but the post mortem confirmed murder.

Sola Ranga Rao of Andhra Pradesh had filed many applications seeking information from the Mandal Parishad Development Office on the funds sanctioned and utilised for the village's drainage system. He was murdered while doing so.

Satyendra Kumar Dubey a project director at the National Highways Authority of India (NHAI) was murdered in Gaya, Bihar after fighting corruption in the Golden Quadrilateral highway construction project.

Manjunath Shanmugam, an IIM graduate was killed while trying to expose the corruption in petroleum marketing.

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