According to the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, since 2005, there have been 315 attacks on whistle-blowers who have used the RTI law to expose scams and corruption. Estimates suggest that more than 65 were killed.
On March 20, 2018, PoipynhunMajaw, an RTI activist in Meghalaya who had been seeking information on the nexus between the leaders of the Jaintia Hills District Council and cement manufacturing firms mining in the area, was found bludgeoned to death. This was soon after Nanjibhai Sondarva was murdered in Rajkot, Gujarat. Sondarva had filed an RTI application wanting to know about the funds spent on the construction of a road in his village.
“It is frustrating beyond measure,” says RTI activist Pankti Jog of Gujarat-based Mahiti Adhikar Gujarat Pahel. “If the government does not protect whistle blowers and their identities, murderous assaults like these will become more common.”
Indeed, if it is not murder, whistle-blowers routinely face criminal intimidation. On April 9 this year, the Delhi High Court heard the plea of a whistle-blower from Haryana who has been receiving death threats for exposing illegal sand mining along the Yamuna. Anand Rai, the doctor who blew the whistle on the Vyapam scam of 2013, has been given ‘punishment postings’ and has allegedly been receiving threats to his life.
“The government needs to extend every possible protection to whistle-blowers as theirs is an altruistic act,” says Anjali Bhardwaj of the National Campaign for People’s Right to Information and citizen rights body Satark Nagarik Sangathan.
The WBP Act came into being partly in response to the circumstances surrounding the murder of Satyendra Dubey, a project director with the National Highways Authority of India (NHAI) in Jharkhand. Dubey had uncovered systemic corruption in his department. In a letter to the Prime Minister, he outlined these irregularities and requested that his identity be kept secret as he feared for his life. Instead, the letter was circulated in the ministry, the NHAI, and eventually found its way to the contractors he had named. Dubey was shot dead on November 27, 2003 in Gaya.
Troubled times for WBP Act
Interestingly, instead of operationalising the WBP Act, in 2015 the government brought an amendment Bill that dilutes the law considerably. The amendment removes the safeguards available to whistle-blowers from prosecution under the Official Secrets Act (OSA). This would make it possible for government servants who expose scams to be not only persecuted as they currently are – but also prosecuted.
Moreover, the amendment forbids disclosure of many categories of information in a whistle-blower complaint, such as information related to the integrity, security, strategic, scientific or economic interests of the state or information that relates to commercial confidence — unless that information has been obtained under the RTI.
“Since the ambit of the OSA is large, government servants could be further deterred from whistleblowing,” says Bhardwaj. “Besides, linking the RTI and WBP Acts would be a grave mistake as they are two completely different laws.”
The amendment Bill has already been passed in the Lok Sabha and is awaiting the nod from Rajya Sabha. “If passed, the amendment will render the brave acts of people like Satyendra Dubey worthless and impossible to emulate,” says Bhardwaj.
Lives cut short
Satyendra Dubey: Shot dead in 2003 after he exposed corruption in NHAI.
Lalit Mehta:Exposed corruption in the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) scheme in Palamu, Jharkhand. Killed in 2008.
Niyamat Ansari: Exposed fund embezzlement in MGNREGA scheme in his village Jerua, Jharkhand. Assaulted, implicated in false cases and finally murdered in 2011.
Nandi Singh: Exposed irregularities in the public distribution system. Murdered in 2012.
Shimbu Ram Bishnoi: Sought information on MGNREGA and other welfare schemes in Jodhpur under the RTI Act. Repeatedly threatened and then killed in 2013.
Bhupendra Vira: Used the RTI Act to prove that his land in Mumbai was being unlawfully encroached upon. Shot dead in 2016.
Nanjibhai Sondarva: Filed RTI query on the construction of a road in his village in Rajkot, Gujarat. Clubbed to death in March 2018.
PoipynhunMajaw: Was investigating possible corruption in the Jaintia Hills District Council. Killed in March 2018