The law should be equal to for all, say RTI activists
As a bill to amend the RTI Act is introduced in Parliament this session, a group of activists have come together to protest against the amendment, by aiding whistleblowers and demanding transparency in the system
Right to Information (RTI) activists in the city and other parts of the country, have come together to protest against the government’s decision to amend the RTI Act. A bill to amend the RTI Act, in order to keep political parties out of the ambit of the transparency law, was up for discussion in Lok Sabha last week.
On August 2, Union cabinet had cleared a proposal to amend the RTI Act and give immunity to politicians. This action by the government has strengthened RTI activists across the country, encouraging them to fight against the passing of the Amendment Bill and simultaneously launching a campaign in the city, to send open letters to various business houses and individual legislators, asking them to support transparency in the system.
Mumbai-based RTI activist Mohammad Afzal (50) demanded that instead of directly amending the Act and putting it for a vote, the Amendment Bill should be a part of public discussion and later should be put forth to the standing committee or the select committee. Only then will it facilitate the public. He says, “What the government is doing is not democratic. The law should be equal for all.”
Protesting against the Amendment Bill, demanding transparency in the system, and monitoring transactions between political parties and business houses, are the demands of RTI activists in the city. They have formed a network with fellow activists across the nation, who will help facilitate whistleblowers. Activist Krishnaraj Rao, who initiated this campaign, says, “If someone wants information regarding the money transactions between a political party and a business house, there are many ways of getting that information.
One of the ways is through RTI. It is the most honourable way of asking who has given them (political parties) donations, how much donation have they received, etc. But if the Amendment Act is passed, a common man will never know where a political party gets its funding from. If this is the case then each organization, whether business houses or political parties, will have some disgruntled people. They may be disgruntled for personal reasons or for ethical reasons.
For example ‘A’ company gives donations to a political party, and receives favours in return. So if there is a person who is upset, he is going to strike a blow at the organization and we are willing to facilitate him. Now if the RTI Act is amended, there is a possibility that the number of discontented people may rise. We have built a network so that we can support them and broadcast the information they have to share. All this is done while protecting their identity.”
Mumbai-based businessman Manish Gala (42) says that those who have a desire to bring about a change in society, will find a way to come together. He says, “People who have taken part in this campaign are doctors, lawyers, professionals and activists. Gathering like-minded people is not hard. These activists are acquainted with people in the corporate offices, government officers and public figures. As each one of us has worked for so long, we carry credibility.
“Right now we are functioning individually and we can contact each other for help and coordination. We did not think of forming an organization as every organization has its limits. In the future, we may create something which is more structured. But for now we have opted for a decentralized group. Our aim is to bring about transparency in the system and know the truth.”
He continues, “By amending the RTI Act the government is killing the Act. There are provisions under section 8 and 9 of the Act, providing protection of the privacy of an individual, trade secrets, or national security. If political parties want more exclusions, then that should be under the law. But here, they are changing the law which doesn’t suit them. If they are not transparent, then whistleblowers will definitely expose corruption.”
Bimal Kumar Khemani (69), an Aligarh-based full-time activist and founder of Transparent Reliable Accountable People’s movement (TRAP) says, “Ham to desh ki doosri azadi ki jang ladh rahe hain (We are fighting our country’s second freedom struggle). No policy exists for the protection of whistleblowers. Instead of protecting the citizens, police are there to teach a lesson to the general public who do not work according to netas (politicians) and bureaucrats.”
While discussing the functioning of the campaign, Khemani says, “Each one of us, who has taken part in this campaign, have our own channels of information and we will start investigating information as we receive it. It may take time in some of the cases, but once we get all the information, we will write to the government to take the appropriate action.
This will be followed by a RTI application and we will ask for a day-to-day progress report. As for broadcasting the information, it will mainly be through social media. Each member has their own blogs and websites, to broadcast it. I will be using my organization, TRAP, which regularly files RTI applications and exposes the corrupt.”
To ensure credibility Gala says, “Verification of the received information is very crucial; also we will make sure that there should not be any missing links. Facts will be verified and documents will be cross checked. I agree that there is a chance that someone may take us for a ride, but sometimes you just have to trust somebody. We will take extra care before going public. As for broadcasting the information, we are supported by the media (print, TV networks and social media) and they are all ready to give us extensive platform.”
Activist Mohammad Afzal says that in Maharashtra and other parts of the country, whistleblowers are regularly targeted. Pointing to the case of leading RTI activist Satish Kumar in Pune, Afzal says, “When the police receive a complaint, they should act upon it immediately. They should contact the concerned whistleblower, and provide the required protection. But in reality this never happens.” Kumar had exposed many land scams in the Talegaon-Lonavala regions and corrupt land deals along the Mumbai-Pune Expressway. He was killed by unidentified men, while on a morning walk.
Afzal says, “With the rising corruption in our country, the protection of the whistleblowers is a must. But today whistleblowers are thought of as traitors. The truth is that they are martyrs. One of the whistleblower I knew, tried to expose the tampering going on with election machines, but today he is behind bars. Just passing the whistleblower protection bill is not the answer. Public awareness has to be created and if there is a mass revolt, only then will our government take notice of us.”
Krishnaraj Rao further adds, “When Bhopal gas leak occurred, there may have been workers, supervisors or engineers, who may have known that the tank carrying methyl isocyanate (MIC) was in a bad condition. If that was the case, someone may have raised the question, ‘Sir if this valve fails then what?’ It is a possibility that he may have been silenced. But at the same time the Bhopal tragedy would have been avoided.
Similarly in the Satyendra Dubey case, the chap unfortunately wrote only to the Prime Minister about the corruption. He thought that by writing to the highest authority in our country, he would be protected. He wrote to Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who naively passed on the letter to the Highway Authority, the very people Dubey had accused. Later the man died. If Dubey had gone public, to media or RTI activists, then there would have been a Public-Interest Litigation (PIL) and there would have been an outrage, which in turn would have protected him. I always advise whistleblowers to always come out. I advise them to avoid secrecy, as openness will protect them.”
Goa-based advocate and RTI activist Aires Rodrigues (53) has been associated with various social and public movements since the 1979 student agitation in Goa, to demand 50 per cent bus concession for students. A member of the whistleblower protection campaign, he says, “Through this campaign we want to create awareness regarding The RTI amendment and the concept of donations in the political system, because of which a whistleblower may feel the need to expose certain information.
With the growing outrage towards corruption today, unauthorized and unaccounted donations are a matter of concern and needs to be nipped in the bud. If ‘A’ political party has received donations for party development, why are they afraid to disclose it? Why are they giving us an opportunity to doubt them? Every paisa has to be accounted for. It is never easy to fight a government, whether corrupt or not, and our government is very rigid. Citizens should have the courage to expose and highlight acts of corruption and nepotism. It is high time their voices are heard and they are protected.”
For more information on the campaign, contact Krishnaraj Rao: 9821588114 or log onto citizensjusticeforum.blogspot.in
Whistleblowers’ Protection Bill
The Government of India has been considering adopting a whistleblower protection law for several years. In 2003, the Law Commission of India recommended the adoption of the Public Interest Disclosure (Protection of Informers) Act, 2002.
In August 2010, the Public Interest Disclosure and Protection of Persons Making the Disclosures Bill, 2010 was introduced into Lok Sabha. The Bill was approved by the cabinet in June, 2011. The Public Interest Disclosure and Protection of Persons Making the Disclosures Bill, 2010 was renamed as The Whistleblowers’ Protection Bill, 2011 by the Standing Committee.
The Whistleblowers’ Protection Bill, 2011 was passed by the Lok Sabha on December 28, 2011. The Bill is however currently pending in Rajya Sabha for discussion and further passage. The Bill was introduced in the Rajya Sabha on March 29, 2012 by V Narayanasamy, Minister of State for Personnel Affairs.
Who is a whistleblower?
A whistleblower is a person who exposes misconduct, alleged dishonest or illegal activity occurring in an organization. The alleged misconduct may be classified in many ways; for example, a violation of a law, rule, regulation and/or a direct threat to public interest, such as fraud, health and safety violations, and corruption.
Whistleblowers may make their allegations internally (for example, to other people within the accused organization) or externally (to regulators, law enforcement agencies, to the media or to groups concerned with the issues).The term whistle-blower comes from the whistle a game referee uses to indicate an illegal or foul play. US civic activist Ralph Nader coined the phrase in the early 1970s to avoid the negative connotations found in other words such as “informers” and “snitches”.
Satyendra Dubey Case
Satyendra Dubey (30) was a project director at the National Highways Authority of India (NHAI). He was murdered in Bihar after fighting corruption in the Golden Quadrilateral (GQ) highway construction project. The GQ project had strict controls to ensure that the construction would be carried on by experienced firms. However, Dubey discovered that the contracted firm, Larsen and Toubro, had been subcontracting the work to smaller low-technology groups, controlled by the local mafia. In spite of contacting his boss, there was no action.
Since Dubey had been facing several threats, he wrote directly to then Prime Minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, detailing the financial and contractual irregularities in the project. While the letter was not signed, he attached a separate bio-data so that the matter would be taken more seriously. Despite a direct request that his identity be kept secret and despite the letter’s sensitive content, accusing some of Dubey’s superiors, the letter along with bio-data was forwarded immediately to the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways.
On November 27, 2003, Dubey was found dead by the side of the road in the suburb of AP Colony, Varanasi. He had been shot. More than six years later, on March 22, 2010 three accused - Mantu Kumar, Udai Kumar and Pinku Ravidas - were convicted for the murder of Dubey.