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Attacking the right to ask

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Attacking the right to ask

 

ARUNA ROY in Indian Express, Saturday, June 14, 2008

 

The killing of activist Lalit Mehta in Jharkhand was a diabolical

warning to those who question, write ARUNA ROY and NIKHIL DEY

 

The thousand-strong gathering at the Theological College grounds in

Ranchi on June 10 had no doubts over why Lalit Mehta was killed. The

36-year-old engineer turned activist, had no personal enemies or

battles. He was a prominent member of The Right to Food Campaign,

working in the Vikas Sahyog Kendra in Palamou District, Jharkhand. All

he had done was access National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA)

 

expenditure records for researchers verifying official records against

field data. On May 14, a day before the planned Social Audit of those

works, he was brutally murdered. His face was disfigured, and his body

badly mutilated. A diabolical warning to those who question.

 

The police, with unseemly haste, buried the unidentified body,

carrying it back 25 kilometres to the scene of the crime, after a

hurriedly conducted post-mortem. But the murder did not stop the

research. Twelve days later, the social audit established that a large

proportion of the Rs 73 crore spent in the district had been siphoned

off by contractors, officials and the well-entrenched development

mafia. The people of Palamou knew that their entitlements were being

pocketed by the corrupt. But they have been helpless victims.

 

The NREGA has provided an entitlement for the first time. The RTI has

given a tool to uncover corrupt practices. The Social Audit is a

mandatory process, under the NREGA Act, giving the people a chance to

establish the truth and push for change. For the first time a corrupt

mafia is threatened by a legally mandated process, which looks at

details and places irrefutable documentary proof in the public domain.

 

The corrupt nexus is reacting with pre-meditated, calculated violence.

It is not just Lalit Mehta. There are reports of threats to activists

seeking information from different parts of the country. In Rajasthan,

Social Audit teams have faced planned attacks in the districts of

Banswara and Jhalawar, in the last six months. According to

K.N.Tripathi, member of the State Employment Guarantee Council of

Jharkhand, Somay Gagarai, the District Convenor of the Congress, for

NREGA West Simbhum was killed about two months ago, for trying to

access facts on NREGA expenditure in his Block, through an RTI

application.

 

Twenty-six days after Lalit's murder, Kameshwar Yadav, a

CPI Liberation NREGA activist was killed in Giridih District,

Jharkhand for similar reasons. In Orissa's Koraput District, Narayan

Hareka, Naib Sarpanch and member of the Orissa Adibasi Manch, was run

down by a tractor on his way home, after he had spent a day trying to

get NREGA information from the Block Office.

 

On June 10, 3,000 people marched through Ranchi asking for justice and

truth. They wanted the CBI to probe both the murder and the NREGA

corruption in Palamou. They demanded that accountability be fixed and

the guilty be booked.

 

The Indian Express on June 13 carried a story on the reports of the

Collector and the SP (District Palamau) on the murder of Mehta and the

social audit going on in the district. Apart from a range of other

alleagtions, their reports accuse Jean Dreze and others of attempting

to malign the state government and falsifying statements. This

objectionable report is yet another reason why a CBI inquiry should be

instituted immediately. Jean Dreze is a member of the NREG Council and

is mandated to help audit the scheme by the law of the land. What he

did was legitimate and legal. It is absurd that he is being accused by

responsible government officers in this fashion.

 

Social audit and RTI are legal provisions created to encourage people

participation, with an obligation on the state to enable such

participation. If the state becomes a mute spectator to attacks on

activists using these provisions it is no less than leading lambs to

the slaughter. The State must act decisively to make sure that all

these efforts result in the strongest action against corruption and

violence. The rest of us must ensure that they do so now.

 

The writers are NREGA-RTI activists and founding members of the

Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan. Aruna Roy was in the IAS between 1968

and 1975

 

mkssrajasthan@gmail.com

 

IndianExpress.com :: Attacking the right to ask

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