A private study about the attacks on Right to Information (RTI) activists has found that most of the information they had sought should have been disclosed by the authorities on their own in the first place.
According to the report by the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI) which studied the cases of death and attacks on RTI activists in India, the information they applied for was of public interest and was almost certainly the cause of the attacks.
The big issues that likely resulted in harassment and even murder were illegal mining, sand excavation, encroachment, police inaction, and the public distribution system, the report pointed out. Many of the activists tried to expose corruption by ministers and government staff, or simply tried to get information from the schools where their children studied.
“Most of the information for which the activists have been attacked are of public interest and should ideally be up as suo moto disclosure by public authorities on their web sites,” said Venkatesh Nayak, author of the report and coordinator of CHRI’s access to information programme.
The report is titled “Attacks on Users and Activists of the Right to Information in India and Role of the National Human Rights Commission”.
In the most recent case in Thane district, Abrar Shaikh was killed after he applied for information about an allegedly illegal construction. The death of the 32-year-old takes the total number of alleged murders of RTI activists in Maharashtra to nine since the RTI Act came into force in 2005.
The state has recorded a total 53 attacks, the highest number in the country, during this period.
The total number of deaths in the country stands at 32. The re have been four deaths in Bihar.
Gujarat, Uttar Pradesh, Karnataka and Jharkhand each registered three deaths. (See box for details)
The report commonly uses the word ‘allege’ because the causes of death cited are from preliminary findings and that the number of cases might not be accurate. This information is based on reports in the English media and does not take into account regional media reports and may therefore differ. There is no study on this by the government.
“In the Shehla Masood case, it was first reported that she was killed because of the issues she pursued on the environment. But later reports suggested the reason for her death could be other than the RTI applications she filed. Hence, we have used ‘alleged murder’,” Nayak said.
While there is apathy from the government, Nayak said lately some positive steps had been taken by the government and the National Human Rights Commission.
“The Department of Personnel and Training (DoPT) has recently come out with a template that authorities should follow. NHRC on the other hand has taken up causes of RTI activists as Human Rights defender cases,” Nayak said.
A DoPT circular issued last month gives templates for suo moto disclosure on primary and secondary schools, as well as the public distribution system, panchayats and the MNREGA scheme.