Saturday, July 31, 2010

How Information Commissioners & Police endanger Right To Information Activists

There has been a spate of 20 attacks on activists in the last 7 months, including 9 killings. [Latest killing “TOI: Home guard killed for seeking info under RTI”: ]

Digging into individual cases may explain why a particular activist was attacked, but fails to explain the larger mystery: Why this sudden rash of attacks nationwide? What is going on here? Is there a pattern?

To understand this nationwide murder-mystery, we need to take a bird’s-eye-view of several relevant facts (including some background facts), and then join the dots to see a pattern.

· Fact no. 1: RTI HAS CAUSED A GROUNDSHIFT, AN IRREVERSIBLE CULTURAL PHENOMENON. The passing of the Right To Information Act in 2005 gave citizens a new locus standi vis-à-vis the government and administration, enabling ordinary people to demand access to documents that were hitherto “official secrets”. By ending the stranglehold of the pre-colonial Official Secrets Act 1923, the RTI Act changed the balance of power between citizens and bureaucracy. Early pioneers (like late Prakash Kardaley, Late Kewal Semlani and Shailesh Gandhi and Anna Hazare in Maharashtra, Aruna Roy in Rajasthan and Arvind Kejriwal in Delhi region) systematically taught people the logic of RTI, creating a well-informed swarm of citizens to question the government on non-performance, arbitrariness and corruption.

Email groups, blogs and mobile technology acted as hubs in the further education of citizens and media by a second generation of RTI activists and experts. With hundreds of aggressive activists scooping out skeletons, there is now a mass movement that is no longer dependent on the initiatives of a few enlightened persons. Indeed, RTI and administrative-reform today provokes popular emotions that were earlier seen only in the case of river-water-sharing issues.

Lakhs of educated information-seekers and activists spend hours daily exchanging legal notes on the internet. The hits and updates on dedicated RTI websites like, or email forums like, probably excel the hits by lawyers on law websites like (In fact, a growing proportion of hits on law websites come from RTI activists looking for Court judgments to cite in their appeals before Information Commissioners.)

Even where internet has not reached, there are, on any given day of the week, a score of activists and NGO workers sitting with villagers and slum-dwellers, patiently explaining the rules of the game and helping to draft requests for information, and appeals against unjustified delay and denial. Through RTI, legal awareness has entered India’s DNA.

· Fact no. 2: RTI ACTIVISTS ARE PRESENT-DAY CRIME FIGHTERS. It is no exaggeration to say that RTI “activists” (as opposed to RTI “Users”) are modern-day detectives and crime-fighters. Unlike Phantom, Spiderman and other imaginary super-heroes, they don’t use fists and guns; like Sherlock Holmes and Perry Mason, they use their brains to get expose crime and sleaze. Forced by the often-deliberate failure of authorities to stop ongoing criminal activities, they set out to expose the crimes and the complicity of officials. Quite often, crime-fighting activity either originates from personal vendetta, or results in personal vendetta, or both. It can be a vicious death-cycle. [As an example, read this Indian Express report on Amit Jethwa here: ]

· Fact no. 3: THE NUMBERS AND NETWORKS OF ANGRY ACTIVISTS IS SWELLING EVERY MONTH. Agonizingly slow case disposal by Information Commissioners discourages many information seekers. But it also turns substantial numbers of information seekers into experts and hard-boiled activists. During the 6-18 months of waiting for hearings at State and Central Information Commissioners (SICs/CICs), frustrated RTI applicants get lots of free advice from senior colleagues, network together and establish groups. Together, they evolve ingenious ways of challenging the system with a combination of RTI applications to various public authorities, complaints, letter-baazi, sting operations, media exposes etc. They develop various legal, administrative and arm-twisting methods for seeking remedy. The slow-moving system thus helping to create an army of its own enemies. This process appears to have reached a saturation point in 2010… hence the killings.

· Fact no. 4: CIC/SIC’s RELUCTANCE FORCES ACTIVISTS TO ENDANGER THEIR LIVES FOR MONTHS & YEARS. The wait for information is made prolonged by SICs/CICs reluctant to enforce the time-limit for giving information – 30 days in a bulk of the cases, 45 days in complicated cases. Information commissioners routinely refuse to penalize public information officers (PIOs), order compensation for distressed appellants, and monitor the smooth flow of quality information. Such routine condonement makes PIOs and public authorities fearless and unmindful of the requirements of the RTI Act. The prolonged struggle of the helpless activists to get information increases their visibility and vulnerability. The activist becomes a sitting duck for the criminals and the corrupt whom he is seeking to expose.

· Fact no. 5: GOVERNMENT POLICY OF ROUTINELY SELECTING POLITICAL APPOINTEES AND RETIRED BABUS FOR THE POST OF CICs/SICs INCREASES THE CHANCES OF ATTACKS ON RTI ACTIVISTS. Does anybody believe that after decades in the administration, a retired IAS officer will force his former colleagues to give out embarrassing information? Is it likely that bureaucrats or political party workers will compel disclosure of documents that may be used as evidence in court? Appointment of such people as SICs/CICs violates the basic tenet of natural justice, vz. “No one should be judge in his own cause.” While minimizing the chances of timely information disclosure and justice, such appointments maximise the chances of the activist’s strategies being leaked the Information Commissioner or his staff to land and mining mafias etc, leading to threats, attacks and killings. For thousands of activists countrywide, this is not a hypothetical scenario, but a regular occurrence.
CIC Selection Issue explained in a nutshell:

· Fact no. 6: UNWILLINGNESS OF POLICE TO REGISTER FIRS AND INVESTIGATE COMPLAINTS OF ACTIVISTS FORCES THEM TO DO DANGEROUS DETECTIVE WORK FOR GATHERING EVIDENCE. Over recent decades, the power to get an FIR registered with the police or Anti-Corruption Bureau with basic evidence of wrongdoing has slipped out of the common citizen’s hands, and accumulated in the hands of the powerful, influential and rich. CrPC sections 154 and 156 say that for FIR to be registered, cognizable offence must be “made out” by the citizen’s complaint; it is the job of the police investigation to gather enough evidence to later frame a charge-sheet and place it before the court.
[Issue on registering FIR explained in a nutshell:
Anti Corruption Bureau explained in a nutshell: ]

Due to police officials’ unwillingness to perform their legal duties – no doubt under political and bureaucratic pressures – RTI activists endanger their lives trying to gather more and more documentary evidence to nail the culprits in court -- a dangerous activity, especially when powerful MLAs, MPs, ministers and history-sheeters are involved.

Amit Jethwa, Dattatreya Patil and Satish Shetty took it on themselves to uncover ongoing criminal activities. In 2009, like all of us, they were part of the struggle for good governance. In 2010, they have been laid to rest. Aren’t we all “dead men walking,” waiting for a bullet to release us from our struggle? Don’t our families live in the fear of being orphaned?

Sumaira Abdulali has been fighting to save the environment from rapacious sand-mining mafias. She was assaulted – not once but twice – and narrowly escaped with her life in january. Nayana Kathpalia has been fighting in courts for decades to prevent theft of precious public spaces in cities by crooks. She was shot at; and luckily, she escaped. How many more chances do we want to give the crooked and the corrupt to eliminate them?

How much longer shall we tolerate and ignore procedures of governments, information commissions and police officials that actively makes living targets out of the best people in our midst?


At the very least, please write petition letters to Chief Minister, Prime Minister, UPA Chairman Sonia Gandhi and Chief Justice of India asking for these systemic changes:

a) Information Commissioners must be selected by a process of open selection, after issuing circulars and advertisements to invite applications from “eminent citizens” from different walks of life, as mandated by RTI Act sections 12(5) and 15(5). Selection cannot be a hush-hush affair that is closed to the public and open only to stooges of Chief Ministers and the Prime Minister.

b) Speaking order formats and other formats recommended by Price WaterHouse Coopers must be implemented. [PWC recommendations: ]

c) Supreme Court should proactively initiate contempt proceedings in response to police officers shirking their lawful duty to register FIRs. The duty to enforce compliance of Supreme Court orders should not be cast on hapless citizens!

Report by:
Krishnaraj Rao

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