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4.27.2010 The Dangers of Digging Up the Truth in India

By Daniel Pepper

Last autumn, when New Delhi resident Ajay Kumar saw that private buildings were encroaching on government land under the aegis of a local politician, he asked the city authority to look into the matter. He was just being a law-abiding citizen. He couldn't imagine his query would put him in the hospital.

Using India's 2005 Right to Information (RTI) Act, which empowers any citizen to ask for information from any level of government, from village leaders to the Prime Minister's office, Kumar asked the Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD) why homes and shops were built on land not zoned for private construction. The MCD's public information officer stonewalled. But Kumar persisted. He appealed to a higher-level public information officer and then to the federal Central Information Commission, which ordered the MCD and the police to inspect the property. But when Kumar arrived on the site in early January, he was attacked by a mob of two dozen that allegedly backed the politician.

"Neither the police nor the people helped me," says Kumar, who was struck in the head with an iron rod, blood covering his face and shirt. And yet despite the attack, Kumar still believes that "RTI is the only tool that can bring an end to a corruption in India." His optimism belies a frightening trend: physical attacks on 'information activists' who seek to root out corruption by making government documents public. In the recent months, two respected activists have been killed, and many others have been threatened, bullied, and intimidated.

The RTI Act presents a cultural sea change in India, where for more than 60 years state bureaucrats have acted more like colonial masters than servants of the people. The Act is among the most robust such laws in the world. In rural areas, the act is often utilized to uncover scams involving politicians, bureaucrats and contractors who siphon off funds from employment programs, housing, food and other services to the poor. The way it works is "you ask for a list of beneficiaries," says prominent New Delhi-based RTI activist Arvind Kejriwal. "Then you check that list and find out that many people are dead and the list is bogus."

According to a study published last July by the National Campaign for People's Right to Information, and funded in part by the Google Foundation, in the first two and a half years since RTI went into effect approximately 400,000 RTI applications were filed from rural areas and 1.6 million from urban areas. While much of the information RTI applicants request ought to be public in the first place, like the size of a budget for a school or road, government bureaucrats in India habitually keep such matters under lock and key.

The law's strength is becoming clear in the backlash against people who are using it. "What has happened with the RTI Act is that it is threatening people in power," says Colin Gonzalves, a Supreme Court lawyer and director of the New Delhi-based Human Rights Law Network. "RTI empowers people to say that the administration is the servant of the people that you are answerable to us. The physical attacks on the people I think are going to increase."

On Feb. 14 in the north Indian state of Bihar, a well-known RTI activist was shot dead by unidentified gunmen on motorcycles at the entrance to his home. He had been working to expose corruption in local welfare schemes. A month before in Pune, a western Indian city about 77 miles (125 km) from Mumbai, another activist, Satish Shetty, was killed while out for his morning stroll. Shetty had a record of exposing land scams in his area and had received threats on his life. He had requested police protection, though none was provided.

What does the violence mean to Shailesh Gandhi, a commissioner with the Central Information Commission, the country's highest authority on RTI applications? "It tells me that the rule of law is almost absent. The truth is that powerful people feel there is no law." Gandhi and his interns, whom he pays out of his own pocket, went through almost 6,000 files last year. In the past 14 months, he has penalized 120 public information offices for not providing information in a timely fashion, or at all.

Despite the attacks, Kheema Ram, a member of India's Dalit or "untouchable" communities, is undeterred. He has filed over 400 RTI applications. "I am a Dalit, I have been discriminated against," says the 35-year-old father of three, who lives in rural Rajasthan. "I want to use the law to fight this discrimination." Using RTI, Kheema has outed the manager of a cooperative bank who embezzled funds and fought for equal pay of male and female manual laborers. But it hasn't been without risk. Kheema Ram has been attacked over two dozen times. "Filing an RTI is like walking on the edge of a sword," says Ram. "There is always some sort of violence."