The Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI), an influential Delhi-based advocacy group, has demanded that the Maharashtra’s Right to Information (RTI) watchdog, State Information Commission, must order disclosure of all information sought by RTI activist Suhas Haldankar of Pimpri-Chichwad, Pune district, murdered on April 2, and put all of it in public domain.
CHRI’s RTI coordinator Venkatesh Nayak says, this is particularly important because “Halkankar did not ask information about purchase of fighter aircrafts or what India was promising the visiting Prime Ministers of Bangladesh and Australia. He was highlighting the poor state of the civic administration in his area.”
The second murder of an RTI activist in Maharashtra in 2017 and the third under the present state government, it comes amidst Government of India (GoI) proposing an amendment in the RTI Rules proposed which authorizes the Central Information Commission (CIC) to close a case upon the death of the applicant.
Draft RTI Rule 12 also proposes to allow those seeking information under RTI to withdraw their application, leading RTI activists to wonder whether, taking advantage of this loophole, those seeking to expose corruption or maladministration would be threatened into withdrawing their appeals.
Comments Nayak, “If Haldankar had fallen for the candies they offered or given in to their intimidatory tactics, he might have withdrawn his RTI applications and appeals.”
With 16 such incidents reported since 2010 (including the latest case), Maharashtra tops the list of states with the highest number of citizens murdered for using RTI to demand transparency and accountability in governance. A total of 66 RTI activists have been killed nationwide since the Act came into place in 2005.
According to CHRI, 34 RTI activists in Maharashtra “have survived physical assaults, while at least 38 other incidents of harassment or threats to RTI activists have been reported in the media since October 2005. CHRI has documented attacks on RTI activists on its website, Hall of Shame, mapping each of them on a Google Map.
Sharply criticizing the RTI draft rules, Nayak says, if these are passed, “all RTI applications and appeals that may have filed by Haldankar with Central public authorities would abate automatically on his death.”
Also taking exception to the Union Minister for Personnel and Public Grievances, the nodal Ministry for implementing RTI Act, for seeking to undermine the criticism of the draft rules as "lack of understanding of what the entire issue is all about", Nayak says, “Of course people without formal training in law will not understand the hair-splitting arguments about RTI Rules, Regulations and Guidelines.”
Simultaneously asking the GoI to “stop dragging its feet on implementing the Whistleblower Protection Act”, CHRI in its statement said, it should “include provisions in the law to protecting RTI activists and RTI applicants from harm.”
Also seeking National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) intervention into the gruesome murder of the RTI activist, CHRI said, Haldankar was “battered to death with cement blocks allegedly by a group of 11 persons in the Pimpri-Chinchwad area of Pune.”
At least one of the accused is said to be a former corporator belonging to the Indian National Congress.