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NEW DELHI, Feb 22 2011 (IPS) - On a winter evening this January, Amarnath Pandey was returning home through a low-lit alley of a suburban town in India’s heartland state Uttar Pradesh when a motorcycle-riding gunman suddenly appeared and fired at him.
“The bullet luckily missed the target and grazed my ear. I felt the searing sensation in my ear and fell down,” said 55-year-old Pandey who is back from hospital but is still in a state of shock.
It was his second brush with death. A week earlier, a lorry tried to run him over.
A local coterie of corrupt government officials apparently want Pandey dead. And all he did to anger them was file an Right to Information (RTI) application inquiring about the details of a local project in which huge sums of money were reportedly embezzled.
Pandey is one of India’s growing RTI activists, a new breed of whistleblowers taking advantage of the landmark Right to Information Act of 2005.
The law empowers citizens to access almost any government information, a move that is aimed apparently at curbing India’s spiraling corruption and making people aware of their rights.
In Pandey’s case, his RTI application tried to track the use of funds of the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MNREGA), a project that supposedly guarantees a hundred days of wage-employment yearly to rural households whose adult members volunteer to do unskilled manual work.
The petition exposed the collusion between the government official and village head of Ghorawal block in Sonebhadra district of Uttar Pradesh in embezzling funds from the project, and helped the government recover three million rupees from the officials involved.
Five years since the RTI law was passed, however, activists continue to incur ire and reprisal from influential wrongdoers exposed by RTI petitions, with many activists paying the price with their lives.
Pandey was among the lucky ones. There have already been eight recorded deaths of RTI activists.
One of them was wildlife activist and environment crusader Amit Jethwa of Gujarat, who was shot dead by gunmen opposite the Gujarat High Court in the western city of Ahmedabad last July.
The 33-year-old Jethwa had filed a suit against a lawmaker from Gujarat, his second after having filed an earlier one against politician Dinu Solanki whom he accused of involvement in illegal mining activities in the protected Gir Forest in Junagadh, home to the endangered Asiatic Lions.
Belinda Wrights, executive director of the Wildlife Protection Society of India (WPSI) and Jethwa’s associate, said, “Amit was a fearless activist who stood up to the mining mafia.
“We must continue to protest his murder and demand that the perpetrators – whatever their status or connections – are arrested and brought to trial,” she said.
Well-known wildlife activist Bittu Sahgal, editor of the Sanctuary Asia magazine which worked closely with Jethwa, said, “He was both visionary and courageous and his abiding faith in young conservationists was reflected in his efforts to mentor and support them.
“We continue to fight his battles,” said Sahgal.
According to Nupur Thakur, convener of the National RTI Forum, one of the problems of whistleblowing in India is the delay in the justice system.
“There are no quick arrests or fast-tracking of cases. Even police often call the incidents a result of personal feud of individuals,” says Thakur.
“There is actually nothing called an RTI activist. Anyone can be an RTI activist by filing an RTI petition. So all individuals filing a petition are vulnerable,” she says.
RTI activist Subhash Chandra Agrawal recently petitioned and obtained the bio-data submitted by India’s embattled Chief Vigilance Commissioner (CVC).
Agrawal’s petition showed how the CVC, the chief of India’s highest anti- corruption body, had himself concealed a tainted track record.
Known for his series of RTI petitions, Agrawal said he has been advised by friends to take security.
“My friends are worried about me. But I see it more as a technical battle with the system than with any individual,” he says.
“Being in Delhi, the national capital, perhaps I am less prone to attacks. The fact is there is no tool to provide security to an RTI activist,” said Agrawal who carries on petitioning, aided by his wife Madhu Agrawal.
“People in India have no faith in the government or even the clamouring opposition parties which are like the other side of the same coin when their turn comes to rule. So the only way to fight corruption is to take recourse to this law,” he says.
According to Danish Raza, a senior journalist at India’s public policy magazine Governance Now which reports extensively on whistleblowing, the threat level of an activist can be reduced with some meaningful measures.
“One way of fighting it is dissemination of the information. As soon as you receive sensitive information through the RTI Act, spread it among others. More people having the information reduces the threat risk to an individual,” he says.
Central Information Commissioner Shailesh Gandhi, who is one of the officials responsible for implementing the act and facilitating the petitioning, said the law in itself is adequate.
“It is now upon the citizens to implement it with greater participation,” he told IPS. “The citizens should come together and put pressure on the government on issues. That will make it difficult for the exposed officials or groups to target RTI activists.”
For the likes of Pandey or the young followers of the slain Amit Jathwa, the threats and killings are not a deterrent to whistle-blowing.
“I survived twice by God’s grace. I will keep fighting corruption, come what may.”
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