'Politicians using RTI queries to spy on RTI activists'

Apr 18, 2012, 07:33 IST | Priyankka Deshpande

Respected RTI activists Vijay Kumbhar, Jugal Rathi and Vivek Velankar claim to have encountered instances of applications filed with PMC by obscure persons seeking info on their activities under sunshine law, say they fear such applicants are proxies of politicians bent on harassing them

Politicians are not known to be fans of the Right to Information Act, but now they seem to have discovered that they can use the same law to obtain details on RTI activists’ work, allegedly in order to know which activist they need to harass to prevent the next big exposé.

RTI activists claim that political leaders are making their proxies use the sunshine law to know what information the activists have sought from government offices.

In one such case, a person by the name of Manohar Kamble sought to know details of all the information sought by RTI activist Vijay Kumbhar so far.

Kumbhar and other activists in the city claim this might be a tactic to put pressure on activists attempting to expose any illegal activities of politicians.

The RTI champions: RTI activists Vivek Velankar, Jugal Rathi,  and Vijay Kumbhar say they have encountered instances of obscure persons filing RTI applications seeking to know about their activities under the sunshine law. The activists say they believe such applicants are proxies of politicians who want to harass them. file pics 

A few days ago, Kamble, a resident of Dhanakawadi, filed an RTI query under Section 11 of the RTI Act — the section deals with filing of an RTI application to get information on a third party — and sent the application to all PMC departments seeking to know what information Kumbhar had sought in the past seven days.

Kumbhar got to know this had happened because according to Section 11 of the RTI Act it is also mandatory for the RTI officer to take the permission of the third party before providing such information to the person who has sought it.

“On April 9, I received a letter from the RTI officer asking my permission to provide the information about my RTI activities to Kamble. As all the information I have sought through RTI is in the public interest, I do not see any problem in providing the information sought by Kamble,” Kumbhar said.

He added that such practices seemed to be nothing but tactics by politicians to put pressure on the whistleblower or make him stay away from filing RTIs. “The person who is seek information about my RTI activities doesn’t have any idea that since last week I haven’t asked for any information from the PMC through RTI, which shows that the person is just a proxy of some political leader,” Kumbhar said.

He added that as there were many cases of wrongdoing that had surfaced with the help of the RTI Act, it seemed logical to assume that some people who were not too happy with all this were now doing things to deter activists.

Another RTI activist, Jugal Rathi, said he had also experienced a similar thing about a year ago when an unknown person filed an RTI application seeking information on how much money he, Kumbhar and one more RTI activist, Vivek Velankar, had spent on RTI activities.

“The sole reason behind such activities is that the political leadership gets disturbed when we file an RTI query to seek information about their illegal activities,” he said.

Velankar said he was not afraid of such RTI applications as genuine activists anyway have no intention of hiding the information they dig out.

“There are certain elements in society who wants to trap us by filing RTI application on our activities, but whatever information we acquire we immediately publish on various websites and make it available for public purposes,” Velankar said. “Therefore, we do not have any issues with people who want to file RTI on our activities.”

Head of the PMC establishment department Kundalik Karkar, who is also the RTI officer for the department, said application like the one filed by Kamble were not new.

“Every month we received around 10 such applications where people are interested in filing RTI on the information that had earlier sought by RTI activists,” Karkar said.

The RTI Officer added that in such cases they had to take the permission of the third party whose RTI activities the information-seeker is interested in.

“If the third party is not ready to provide the information, then it’s mandatory for us to not provide the information. The person seeking the information can then appeal to the State Information Officer (SIO) for acquiring the information about activities of RTI activists, but the SIO also takes permission of the third party before providing the information,” Karkar said.

Whistleblower Protection Bill in RS
In August 2010, the Public Interest Disclosure and Protection of Persons Making the Disclosures Bill, 2010, was introduced in Parliament. The bill was renamed the Whistleblowers’ Protection Bill, 2011, by the Standing Committee on Personnel, Public Grievances, Law and Justice. The Whistleblowers’ Protection Bill, 2011, was passed by the Lok Sabha December 28, 2011. The bill is currently pending in the Rajya Sabha for discussion and
further passage. The bill was introduced in the Rajya Sabha on March 29, 2012, by Minister of State for Parliamentary Affairs V Narayanasamy.

Attacks on RTI activists in state
There have been several attacks on RTI activists in the state over the past few years. Quite a few RTI activists have been murdered. In 2010 alone, six activists were killed and several assaulted, according to the Mumbai-based NGO Movement against Intimidation, Threats and Revenge against Activists (MITRA). Here is a list of the major incidents.

January 2010: RTI activist Satish Shetty, who exposed a series of land scams, was hacked to death while on a morning walk near his residence in Talegaon Dabhade

April 2010: Vitthal Gite, an RTI activist who exposed irregularities in a village school in Beed, was killed in a clash between two groups

August 28, 2010: RTI Activist Ramdas Ghadegaokar was stoned to death at Nanded

January 2, 2011: RTI activist Arun Mane, who was pursuing land scams around the city, was attacked near Talegaon-Dabhade. He was hit with a blunt weapon

April 18, 2011: RTI activist Popat Barge was attacked in Phaltan village of Satara district with a sword by an unidentified person 

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