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'Contractor-official nexus led to RTI activist's murder': Fact-finding team seeks probe

Courtyard inside of PWD office where Ranjeet Soni was killed
Counterview Desk 
A fact-finding team* visited Vidisha, Madhya Pradesh (MP) on June 19, 2022 to meet with the family of Ranjeet Soni, who was shot dead on June 2, 2022 inside the premises of the PWD office in Vidisha. The objective was to gather information about the circumstances surrounding the death of Ranjeet Soni and his work on exposing corruption through the use of the Right to Information (RTI) Act.
A report prepared by the team members says that Ranjeet had been extensively using the RTI Act to access information from the government, and upon receiving documents showing misuse of public funds or corruption, he was filing complaints to various authorities including the Lokyukta, Publi Works Department (PWD) and the Chief Minister’s Office.
It notes, Ranjeet used to work as a contractor and often undertook government works in collaboration with other contractors, including those being investigated for his murder. A few years ago, due to some falling out between them, Ranjeet stopped working with them as a contractor on government works.
According to the report, Ranjeet had been threatened multiple times to withdraw the RTI applications by contractors against whom he had filed complaints and he had also previously been attacked in the PWD office. He had filed complaints about these incidents to the Police seeking appropriate action.
The report recommends making public all the RTI applications filed by Ranjeet Soni and their replies, a thorough probe into the various complaints filed by him and investigation into the nexus between the contractors and officials.

Excerpts:

A team consisting of Anjali Bhardwaj, Rolly Shivhare, Ajay Dubey, Amrita Johri and Santosh Malviya visited Vidisha, Madhya Pradesh (MP) on June 19, 2022 to meet with the family of Ranjeet Soni who was shot dead on June 2, 2022. The objective was to gather facts about the circumstances surrounding the death of Ranjeet Soni and his work on exposing corruption through the use of the Right to Information (RTI) Act.

Murder of Ranjeet Soni in Vidisha, MP on June 2, 2022

Ranjeet Soni, 46 years old, was shot dead in broad daylight at around 5 pm on June 2, 2022. He was shot in the back of the head at point blank range within the premises of the office of the Public Works Department (PWD), Vidisha just outside the main entrance to the office. There was a CCTV camera installed above the main entrance, barely 5-7 feet from the spot at which Ranjeet Soni was murdered, however as per the Police, the CCTV was not functional. The PWD office is located in a crowded area in Vidisha- opposite the district court and adjacent to the district Panchayat Office. As per Police officials, he had gone to the PWD office in relation to his RTI matters. The police registered an FIR on June 2 (FIR no. 0332/2022) against an unknown person under sections 302 and 201 of the Indian Penal Code (annexure 1). The Police have arrested 5 people for the murder- the shooter Ankit Yadav alias Tunda, Jaswant Raghuvanshi, Naresh Sharma, S. Kumar Choube and Shailendra Patel. As per a press note issued by the Police, the murder was the result of a falling out between Ranjeet Soni and Jaswant Raghuvanshi, Naresh Sharma, S. Kumar Choube who used to work together as contractors and had filed several complaints against each other. As per the press note, the contractors hired shooter Ankit Yadav through Shailendra Patel.

Observations from visit to Vidisha

We met with the wife and children of Ranjeet Soni at their residence in Vidisha. We also spoke to a lawyer who had been helping Ranjeet with the legal follow-up of his cases and a journalist associated with a local newspaper who had been reporting on the case.
Gayatri, wife of Ranjeet Soni, shared with us that he used to work as a contractor and often undertook government works in collaboration with other contractors, including those being investigated for his murder. A few years ago, due to some falling out between Ranjeet and the other contractors namely, Jaswant Raghuvanshi and S. Kumar Choube, Ranjeet stopped working with them as a contractor on government works. He started using the RTI Act to access details of public works and government expenditure. He used to file complaints against irregularities noticed, including in the work carried out by these contractors. There was also on-going litigation between Ranjeet and these contractors over dispute of a bounced cheque allegedly given by Ranjeet. The next hearing of this case was scheduled for June 3 (Soni was murdered on June 2) where Gayatri and Ranjeet’s lawyer told us that evidence of corruption against the contractors was to be presented. Gayatri told us that a few years ago the family had to vacate and sell a house they had purchased, as payments to Ranjeet were being delayed and stopped due to the action of these contractors.
On the day that Ranjeet Soni was murdered, Gayatri was out of station with her younger son. Her older son informed us that he was with Ranjeet at home, when Ranjeet received a phone call asking him to come to the PWD office in connection with some RTI applications.
Gayatri shared with us that though she was not involved in the work being done by Ranjeet, he had told her that he was pursuing issues related to fake Fixed Deposit Receipts (FDRs) made by certain contractors in collusion with officials to bid for government contracts.
Ranjeet’s lawyer informed us that some of the accused being investigated for the murder had threatened Ranjeet earlier as well in a bid to pressurise him to stop pursuing his RTI matters and complaints of corruption.
Gayatri showed us a bag containing papers and correspondence between Ranjeet and various departments of the government. She said there were several boxes and bags full of such papers in the house. From among the papers we were able to see, there were several RTI applications filed to public authorities and complaints filed to the Lokayukta. Some of these are summarised below:
  • Application under the RTI Act dated 25/2/2022 seeking details about the process of appointment of the Deputy General Manager, including the eligibility criteria, in the Pradhan Mantri Grameen Sadak Vikas Pradhikaran implementation unit in Vidisha.
  • Application under the RTI Act dated 21/2/2022 filed to the PWD seeking details of notices issued to contractors pursuant to certain decisions of the Lokayukta. The replies furnished in this matter include complaints filed by Ranjeet to the Lokayukta. Two of the complaints filed in December 2020 sought an investigation into alleged corruption in works carried out by Ankur Construction Company for PWD, Vidisha and inaction by PWD officials (Jaswant Singh Raghuvanshi is the proprietor of the company). Another one sought an investigation into allegations of corruption and wrongdoing in development works carried out during the tenure of an Engineer in the PWD. The correspondence included another complaint dated August 2021 marked to the Chief Minister, PWD minister, Chief Secretary and senior officials in PWD regarding alleged irregularities in the FDRs (Fixed Deposit Receipts) presented by Jaswant Singh Raghuvanshi, proprietor of Ankur Construction Company in the tender documents for works in PWD, Vidisha. The correspondence also includes several show cause notices issued by PWD to Ankur Construction Company over wrongful delays by the company in executing works awarded to it.
  • Application under the RTI Act dated 5/1/2021 filed to the District Hospital in Vidisha, seeking details of stock and supply of ARV injections.
  • Application under the RTI Act filed to the Police in Vidisha in February 2017 seeking details of action taken by the Police on a complaint.
  • Complaint filed by Ranjeet Soni on 9.9.2016 to the Police alleging that subsequent to filing an RTI application seeking details of road construction in the area, Jaswant Singh Raghuvanshi and his son came to Ranjeet’s house and threatened him with dire consequences if he did not withdraw the RTI application. As per the complaint, on 30.6.2016, Ranjeet was attacked by 3-4 people in the PWD office regarding which he filed a complaint to the police. Upon the Police taking no action in the matter, he filed a case in the local court. A few days later, 8-10 people again attacked him at home in an attempt to kill him regarding which he filed a complaint to the Police control room. According to the complaint, Raghuvanshi kept pressuring Ranjeet to withdraw the application and a few days later got another person Rakesh Ahirvar to file a FIR against Ranjeet under the SC/ST Act about an alleged incident of 12.7.2016 regarding which the complaint states that the incident is false and Ranjeet did not know and had never met any Rakesh Ahirvar . As per the complaint, on 8.9.2016, Jaswant Raghuvanshi, his son and two unknown persons came at 8 pm to Ranjeet’s house and abused him and again threatened to kill him if he did not withdraw his RTI applications and also said they had trapped him in a false case to teach him a lesson.
  • Letter dated 4.4.2022 written by S. Kumar Choube to the Divisional Project Engineer, PWD Vidisha stating that Ranjeet Soni was seeking information about works carried out by Choube for the PWD and then using that information to blackmail Choube and officials of the PWD and therefore, in future if information is provided to Ranjeet, then Choube should be informed. The letter further stated that the department should not provide information to Ranjeet and if any untoward incident takes place then the department will be responsible.

Financial condition of the family of Ranjeet Soni

Ranjeet Soni's wife
Ranjeet Soni is survived by his wife and 2 sons aged 15 and 10 years. Gayatri shared that the family was in a dire financial condition after the death of Ranjeet as he had been the primary bread earner for the family. While she has been working for several years as a part time trainer/guest faculty at the Farmer’s Training Centre of Punjab National Bank located nearby, imparting training on handicraft and cooking/baking on a daily basis, she earns only about Rs. 2,000 every fortnight. She voiced her worries about affording the rent, school uniform for her children and paying for transportation to and from school which came to about Rs. 800 per month for each child. At the time we visited the family, neighbours were helping them with some rations. Gayatri told us that after religious rites were observed at home, for which her family paid, she had no money to pay the cleaning lady and asked her to take an old air cooler of the family in lieu of money. She said that they had no savings since her husband had given up his work as a contractor and had been relying on small private jobs from time to time.

Observations of the fact-finding team

It is clear that Ranjeet Soni had been extensively using the RTI Act to access information from the government. As per local journalists, he had filed more than 130 RTI applications and complaints, many of which were filed to the PWD. Having perused the available papers, it is also evident that upon receiving information showing misuse of public funds or corruption, Ranjeet was filing complaints to various authorities including the Lokyukta, PWD and the Chief Minister’s Office seeking appropriate action into the allegations. A perusal of the RTI applications filed by him show that in several cases he was seeking information which in any case should have been proactively disclosed by the concerned public authority as required under Section 4 of the RTI Act.
Due to the falling out between Ranjeet and the contractors, there were complaints and counter-complaints between them and there was also pending litigation about a bounced cheque. From the papers, it can be seen that Ranjeet was accessing details of works undertaken by these contractors. It can also be ascertained that the contractors had attempted to pressurise Ranjeet multiple times to withdraw the RTI applications and he had also previously been attacked in the PWD office and he had filed complaints about these incidents to the Police seeking appropriate action. In our view, the connection between Ranjeet’s murder and his use of the RTI Act to access information and expose alleged corruption/irregularities cannot be denied.

Recommendations

In addition to the criminal investigation into the murder of Ranjeet Soni, other related aspects also need to be pursued strongly - especially in terms of the various RTI applications filed by Ranjeet Soni and the complaints made by him to the Lokayukta, PWD and other authorities. As discussed in the report, the family is in deep financial crisis and the government must provide immediate compensation to the family.
The recommendations cover each of these aspects and will need to be acted upon by various authorities including the Madhya Pradesh State Information Commission (SIC), Public Works Department (PWD), Lokayukta, Police and various departments of the state government. The name of the concerned authority is indicated in brackets at the end of each recommendation below.
  1. Place in the public domain, on the website of the concerned public authorities, all the RTI applications filed by Ranjeet Soni in the last one year (including any pending applications) along with the information/replies. Giving wide publicity to the information being pursued by people who are killed, potentially acts as a deterrent against such attacks in the future, as perpetrators get the message that rather than covering up the matter, any attack would invite even greater public scrutiny. [SIC and concerned public authorities]
  2. Set up an inquiry committee, headed by a senior PWD official from outside the district, to probe into the various complaints of corruption and financial irregularities filed by Ranjeet Soni to the PWD. Make the findings of the committee public. [PWD]
  3. Fast track the complaints filed by Ranjeet Soni to the Lokayukta and ensure a thorough, time-bound probe into the allegations of corruption and financial irregularities and make the findings public. The complaints must not be closed or dismissed on account of the death of the complainant. If required, the Lokayukta could appoint a lawyer to pursue the cases on behalf of Ranjeet Soni. [Lokayukta]
  4. Provide immediate financial assistance to the family by way of compensation to ensure they are able to continue to afford the rent of the house they are living in and pay the school related and other essentials expenses for the children and his wife. Further, the local administration must facilitate the family in applying for and seeking benefits under all applicable social welfare schemes including widow pension, scholarship schemes etc. and also consider providing employment to Gayatri Soni, the widow of Ranjeet Soni to enable her to earn a livelihood and ensure a life of dignity for the family. [State government]
  5. Ensure a thorough investigation into the murder of Ranjeet Soni, including examining whether he was killed as a result of exposing corruption in government works on the basis of information accessed under the RTI Act. In addition to investigating the role of contractors against whom Ranjeet Soni had filed complaints, the police must investigate the nexus between the contractors and PWD officials. In the complaints filed by him, Ranjeet had highlighted that the alleged irregularities were being indulged in by the contractors in collusion with officials. A thorough probe investigating officials is especially important since Ranjeet was murdered within the premises of the PWD office in Vidisha and had also been attacked on an earlier occasion in the same office. [Police]
  6. The state government must adopt a policy/law to provide protection to whistleblowers and people exposing corruption along the lines of the provisions of the Whistle Blowers Protection Act which was passed by Parliament in 2014 but has not been operationalised till date as the Central government has not notified the requisite rules. [State Government]
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*Anjali Bhardwaj, Rolly Shivhare and Amrita Johri, members of the working committee of the National Campaign for Peoples’ Right to Information; Ajay Dubey, a board member of Transparency International, India; and Santosh Malviya, who works with Ajay Dubey in Madhya Pradesh. Click here for full report

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