As reported by Lydia Polgreen on nytimes.com 22 January 2011:
High Price for India’s Information Law
KODINAR, India — Amit Jethwa had just left his lawyer’s office after discussing a lawsuit he had filed to stop an illicit limestone quarry with ties to powerful local politicians. That is when the assassins struck, speeding out of the darkness on a roaring motorbike, pistols blazing. He died on the spot, blood pouring from his mouth and nose. He was 38.
Mr. Jethwa was one of millions of Indians who had embraced the country’s five-year-old Right to Information Act, which allows citizens to demand almost any government information. People use the law to stop petty corruption and to solve their most basic problems, like getting access to subsidized food for the poor or a government pension without having to pay a bribe, or determining whether government doctors and teachers are actually showing up for work.
But activists like Mr. Jethwa who have tried to push such disclosures further — making pointed inquiries at the dangerous intersection of high-stakes business and power politics — have paid a heavy price. Perhaps a dozen have been killed since 2005, when the law was enacted, and countless others have been beaten and harassed.
In many of these cases, the information requested involved allegations of corruption and collusion between politicians and big-money business.
“Now that power people are realizing the power of the right to information, there is a backlash,” said Amitabh Thakur, an activist and police official who is writing a book about people killed for demanding information under the law. “It has become dangerous.”
India may be the world’s largest democracy, but it remains dogged by the twin legacies of feudalism and colonialism, which have often meant that citizens are treated like subjects. Officials who are meant to serve them often act more like feudal lords than representatives of the people.
The law was intended to be a much-needed leveler between the governors and the governed. In many ways it has worked, giving citizens the power to demand a measure of accountability from bureaucrats and politicians.
When the law was passed, Mr. Jethwa, a longtime activist who nursed a lifelong grudge against those who abused official power, immediately seized upon it as a powerful new tool.
His objective was to stop illegal quarries near the Gir National Park, 550 square miles of scrubland and deciduous forest near his hometown, along the southern coast of Gujarat, India’s most prosperous state. The preserve is the only remaining habitat of the rare Asiatic lion. The animal is featured on the national emblem of India, and is considered by Hindus to be a sacred incarnation of Lord Vishnu.
But the forest sits in a mineral-rich area of coastal Gujarat dotted with cement factories that churn out building materials to fuel India’s near double-digit economic growth. The limestone that lies just beneath the soil in and around the Gir Forest is an ideal component of cement. By law, the forest and a three-mile boundary around it are off limits to all mining activity. But quarries the size of several football fields have been cut deep into the earth in the protected zone.
This mining has had serious consequences not only for the forest preserve, but also for water used for drinking and farming. The thirsty limestone is a natural barrier between seawater and fresh groundwater. A recent state government report concluded that limestone mining had allowed seawater to flow into the aquifer, causing an “irreversible loss.”
Balu Bhai Socha, an environmental advocate who worked with Mr. Jethwa, said the pace of mining rapidly increased as the local economy boomed.
“The speed with which the illegal mining was going on, we realized, within 10 years they will clean out the whole forest,” Mr. Socha said.
Mr. Jethwa repeatedly filed information requests to unearth the names of those operating the quarries and to see what action had been taken against them. He discovered there were 55 illegal quarries in and around the preserve. One name stood out among the records of land leases, electricity bills and inspection reports: Dinubhai Solanki, a powerful member of Parliament from the Bharatiya Janata Party, which governs Gujarat.
Mr. Solanki, who had risen from the State Legislature to Parliament, was a local kingmaker and an imperious presence. He had the backing of the local police and bureaucrats, activists here said. Mr. Jethwa and many others suspected that he was the mastermind and principal beneficiary of the illegal mining operation.
In February 2008, Mr. Jethwa was attacked by a gang of men on motorbikes. He was beaten so badly that he had to be hospitalized. He immediately suspected Mr. Solanki.
“If someone attacks me, or kills me in an accident, if my body is injured — for these acts the Kodinar Member of Legislative Assembly Dinu Solanki will be responsible,” he wrote in a letter to Gujarat’s chief minister, Narendra Modi, after the attack.
His father begged him to stop.
“I cautioned him several times about the danger,” the elder Mr. Jethwa said. “But he used to say: ‘Forget that you have three sons and say you have two sons. Let me do my work.’ He would say, ‘My religion is rule of law.’ ”
Mr. Jethwa’s information requests found sheaves of correspondence between forestry officials and local bureaucrats showing that despite repeated efforts to shut down the quarries, the practice continued.
By last June, he felt that he had amassed enough evidence to file a lawsuit to stop the mining. He filed the papers on June 28. On July 20, late at night, he was gunned down, leaving behind a wife and two children.
Because of his activism and the place where he died, practically on the doorstep of the state high court, political pressure forced an unusually swift investigation. Detectives used cellphone records to link Shiva Solanki, the nephew of Dinubhai Solanki, to the killing, and he has been charged with conspiracy and murder. He is accused of hiring a contract killer to murder Mr. Jethwa.
But few people believe that Shiva Solanki, who works for his uncle, could have carried out and paid for a contract killing on his own.
Anand Yagnik, a prominent human rights lawyer in Gujarat, said that the police had made no effort to investigate Mr. Solanki.
“The message that has gone out is that if you resort to your right to information to try to harass a political person, even after your murder, that man will go scot-free,” Mr. Yagnik said, seated below a portrait of Gandhi in his basement law office in Ahmedabad.
The police did not respond to repeated requests for comment on the investigation into Mr. Jethwa’s death. Mr. Solanki told reporters at his office here that because the case was under investigation he would not answer questions.
“You are welcome to sit here, have a cup of tea,” he said. “I will not say a word.”
Mr. Jethwa’s death has sent a chill through the community of activists here. Mr. Socha, the environmental activist, said that he now thought twice before challenging powerful interests and that he wondered if the risks were worth it.
“Our hearts are broken after his death,” Mr. Socha said. “You cannot fix the system. Everybody is getting money. If I give my life, what is the point?”
An article by L V Srinivasan in thehindubusinessline.com on 24 January 2011:
The Hindu Business Line : Takeaways from an RTI experience
Takeaways from an RTI experience
A case where request for info on some Budget 2007 notings was rejected by the CBDT, but made available by the Central Information Commission, the Second Appellate Authority under the RTI Act.
The Right to Information Act of 2005 is a very important piece of legislation to bring about complete transparency in the functioning of the bureaucracy and thus increase accountability as well as reduce corruption.
Since it is a relatively new legislation it takes time for people to understand its implications and make good use of it. Already we hear about lot of RTI activists making best use of the Act.
India being a diverse country with people in different economic strata, any systemic change takes its own time to be visible.
The experience of the past suggests that even though it is slow, such changes indeed are accepted by the people over a period of time. For example, VRS and privatisation of PSUs were vehemently opposed when introduced, but were well embraced later by the employees of PSUs.
Through this article I wish to share an interesting experience with the Central Information Commission (CIC), the Second Appellate Authority under the RTI.
I had sought from the Central Board of Direct Taxes, New Delhi (CBDT) the file notings in the Union Budget of 2007, concerning the retrospective amendment to Section 54EC of the Income-Tax Act, as per which the investment of long-term capital gains was capped at Rs 50 lakh and thus any capital gain in excess of this amount was taxable even in the previous year 2006-07.
This request was rejected by the CPIO (Central Public Information Officer) in the CBDT. The appeal against this request was also dismissed by the First Appellate Authority in the CBDT stating that file notings in the “Budget Files” are exempt from disclosure under the RTI Act. The matter was carried in further appeal to the CIC.
For filing the appeal with the CIC, it is possible to do it online on the CIC Web site ( rti.india.gov.in), which is very user-friendly. After submitting it online, a physical copy of the application has to be printed, signed by the appellant and sent to the CIC along with the enclosures such as the information request to the CPIO, his response, appeal to the First Appellate Authority, decision of the said Authority, and so on. An appeal number is generated as soon as the online filing is complete and at any subsequent point of time, the status of the appeal can be tracked on the Web site by quoting the appeal number.
The hearing by the CIC is conducted through videoconference for appellants who are stationed outside Delhi. The respondents (CBDT) will be required to present themselves in person in the courtroom of the CIC in Delhi. The appellant can present himself at the local office of the National Informatics Centre. NIC is present across all State capitals and in a number of districts in various States.
In my case, I got an intimation for the videoconference for a particular date and just a day before that I got another intimation for a subsequent date. Hence I was under the impression that the hearing has been postponed. But just to reconfirm this I called up the CIC office at Delhi on the morning of the first date when they realised that there has been some error in sending the second communication and that the hearing is scheduled on the first date itself.
As it was too late for me to proceed to the NIC office, the CIC officials took down my landline number and informed me that the Information Commissioner (IC) will conduct an audio conference with me and the respondent (CBDT).
Bingo, the call came from the IC and the hearing lasted for about 30 minutes and it got concluded with a decision from the IC that the file notings in the “ Budget File” have to be shared and there is nothing confidential about them, three years after the said Budget was presented in Parliament.
The physical orders are awaited from the IC, though the same has already been posted on the CIC Website (cic.gov.in), for any one to see. Thus it will be seen how the whole process is so citizen-friendly, which we are not generally used while dealing with bureaucrats.