Six years on since India’s Right to Information Act (RTI) came into force, it has unleashed a spate of violence, and many activists struggling for transparency and openness have been facing dangerous threats.
Activists struggling for transparency in India face dangerous threats
A struggle for community land held illegally by a feudal landlord in the 90s and the subsequent struggle for minimum wage gave rise to what is today India's Right to Information Act (RTI).
Citizens have used the RTI act, with varying success, to expose wrongdoing
Since it came into effect in 2005, citizens have used it with varying degrees of success in different parts of the country. But the struggle for transparency and openness has not been without a price. At least 11 people were killed last year after exposing cases of corruption in public utilities, mining and food distribution.
"Mainly those persons whose corrupt deeds were exposed, mainly private contractors, they are attacking the RTI activists," says Subash Chandra Agarwal, an RTI community activist based in Delhi. "The mafia group and contractors are taking advantage of corruption in authority."
Being in the capital, Agarwal says he has been spared much of the threats that other activists have gone through. Mumbai-based Sumaira Abdulali, who founded the Movement against Intimidation, Threats and Revenge against Activists (MITRA) has been attacked twice. "The first time they attacked me and hit me on the head," she says, for exposing a multi-million-dollar sand mining scam allegedly involving politicians, civil servants and police.
RTI activists risk their lives
The second time some unknown people in two SUVs chased her car through a lonely mountain road. "They got a truck which was waiting for us, to try and push us over the bridge by hitting us from the side. Because I stopped suddenly they couldn’t do that. But they got out of the car, broke all the windows with rocks and tried to pull us out and assault us," she recounts.
RTI and enviroment activist Sumaira Abdulali was attacked twice for exposing a sand mining scam
Hundreds of other whistleblowers and activists have been attacked, threatened or harassed. "If more and more people don’t come out and take up public interest issues, then we are going to become ruled by whatever we have and you know things will deteriorate quickly," Abdulali worries, adding that such incidents will make people give up the challenge.
"I really think RTI is a great act. But the implementation and the will of the government to make sure that we have good governance and that RTI activists are protected is very important to making a change in this country."
Crusade to end corruption in India
But RTI activist Agarwal says more people are joining the crusade to end corruption in India. However, he adds, no amount of security will be enough to ensure the safety of activists who expose wrongdoing, "because it’s a vast country, and mafia people are very well equipped with arms and money and other muscle power, they can attack anywhere," Agarwal adds.
Activists spreading awareness about the RTI campaign for whistleblowers' safety
"I suggested that security which is misused by persons in power should be snatched. Then they will be sensitive to security of ordinary citizens, including activists."
Agarwal recently organized a workshop to educate people on how to use the Right to Information Act.
Volunteer organizations and other activists spreading awareness about it are also initiating campaigns to provide safety to whistleblowers, while the government is still planning to propose a "whistleblowers" bill to protect RTI activists.
Author: Sherpem Sherpa
Editor: Sarah Berning