New Delhi
On October 16 in Garamdi village in Banaskantha district in Gujarat, Ratnasinh Chaudhary, a 30-year-old farmer, was walking with his son towards his field. Four men accosted him, beating him with sticks till he died. As the police investigated the murder, they found probable motive: Chaudhary had filed a Right To Information (RTI) application asking for a list of those who had received relief packages for a flood in July. Kishore Chaudhary, a resident from the neighbouring village of Khatau, said the reply to Chaudhary's RTI showed that while flood victims got Rs 2,500, several unaffected people had received cash doles of between Rs 55,000 and Rs 90,000. Chaudhary was probably killed for bringing this fraud to light.

Sadly, it is an old story: a man tries to expose wrongdoing and pays a heavy price. Chaudhary is the 50th person to be killed for officially asking the government for information. Since 2005, when the RTI Act as enacted, every two months, one RTI user has been killed on average and at least four harassed or attacked. Chaudhry's state of Gujarat has seen the second largest number of killings after Maharashtra.

The RTI is a popular tool for ordinary citizens to demand transparency, but in the last decade, many RTI users and whistleblowers have faced physical, financial and psychological harassment, often abetted by the state. Today, this allergy for public accountability has spurred attempts to diminish transparency policies too. The BJP, like the Congress, refuses to comply with the Supreme Court's ruling that brings political parties under the purview of the RTI Act. The central information commission (CIC) today rejects more than 90% RTI appeals. The government has left the Whistleblowers' Protection Act 2011 and Lokpal and Lokayukta Act 2013 unimplemented, but is trying to remove legal immunity to whistleblowers and introducing heavy obstacles for filing complaints. The NDA regime might claim clean and open governance, but through benign neglect and systemic dilution, it has been dismantling institutions of accountability.

Right to No Information

The right to information has always made governments queasy. The Congress-led UPA government passed the RTI as one of its big ticket legislations, but in 2013, tried to increase exceptions, which they had to drop after RTI activists protested.

Today, the NDA is not tinkering with the law, but in its own way, has been crippling it. A study by RTI Assessment and Advocacy Group (RAAG) and Samya Centre for Equity Studies found that at the end of 2013, over 2 lakh cases were pending in 23 information commissions, and at the current rate of disposal, an appeal filed today with the Madhya Pradesh State Information Commission would come up only after 60 years while West Bengal would take 17 years. Despite this, the NDA government left the post of Chief Information Commissioner vacant for about nine months. "To leave the top post empty when cases are mounting shows that the government doesn't think public information is important," says Shailesh Gandhi, an RTI activist and former CIC.

Activists allege that commissions now increasingly cite technical reasons to refuse applications. For instance, RTIs are refused when an applicant is not an individual but part of an institution, or the mentioned department is wrong. "None of these are grounds for outright rejection," says Venkatesh Nayak, RTI program coordinator at the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI).

The CIC website shows that from 2,633 in June, the number of appeals admitted fell to 1,829 in July, 448 in August, and to 119 in September. This sharp drop coincides with the appointment of retired bureaucrat Vijai Sharma as the information commissioner. RTI activists like Lokesh Batra allege the CIC is misusing a rule that allows an appeal to be returned if it's not accompanied with required documents. Shailesh Gandhi says political reluctance to share information is a given - "Everyone in power doesn't like RTI" - but it is "a serious problem" when the commissions don't pull their weight. "A few instances of misuse of RTI for blackmailing or settling scores cannot be the excuse to reject 92-95% of appeals," he says. The NDA recently submitted in the Supreme Court that political parties do not fall in the ambit of RTI. This is no different from the UPA. "In finding ways to escape accountability, parties will always find common cause," says Trilochan Sastry of the Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR). "The RTI, the CIC and the Supreme court have repeatedly ruled that parties fall under RTI. Ignoring this is a dangerous and unhealthy trend, and it harms our democracy."
In 2013, ADR found that 80% of donations to political parties were from unknown sources. Of the known sources, 90% was corporate. This included funds from foreign companies like Vedanta to both the Congress and BJP in direct violation of the Foreign Contributions Regulations Act (FCRA) that prohibits foreign funding of political activity. The High Court held this as illegal and ordered the Election Commission to take action, but the parties have challenged the order in the Supreme Court. Meanwhile, the NDA is trying to amend the FCRA rules to redefine any company registered in India as an "Indian company", making corporate political funding easier.

New Dangers

While the popular RTI requires a subtle game, the government has been more direct in diluting another anti-corruption legislation: the Whistleblowers Protection Act 2011. The law protects a complainant exposing corruption or abuse of power, and ensures a speedy inquiry. It is the only whistleblower law in the world to protect not only persons within government, but also citizens or NGOs outside the government. "Rather than giving such a progressive law space and time for implementation, the NDA wants to defang it, like the UPA tried to do with the RTI Act when it felt threatened by its impact," says CHRI's Nayak.
The law is still unimplemented, but in May 2015, the Lok Sabha passed amendments whittling it down. The changes remove the whistleblowers' immunity from prosecution under the Official Secrets Act, and require their identities to be disclosed. The NDA exempts 10 categories including national security, commercial confidence, privacy, trade secrets, and foreign relations. Further, the Central Vigilance Commission must make sure the complaint doesn't cover 32 grounds prohibited for whistleblowing. The department concerned must also check the 32 restrictions, and give a clearance for an inquiry. A Cabinet Note on the amendment justifies the changes saying that citizens cannot have "an absolute right" to blow the whistle as it would "prejudicially affect" the interests of the country.

If the changes are passed by the Rajya Sabha too, Nayak explains what it would mean. "No officer, private person or NGO will be allowed to blow the whistle about environmental pollution caused by a company's actions, often occurring in collusion with public servants. They cannot expose unhealthy drugs that public servants did not stop from entering the market, unless proof for the complaint is got through an RTI. Even then, there is no guarantee of inquiry unless the department gives a clearance certificate."

Exactly a day before the farmer in Gujarat was killed for filing an RTI, Prime Minister Narendra Modi declared in his alliterative style that RTI replies should be timely, transparent, and trouble-free, and people should have the right to question the government. The days of maintaining secrecy were gone, he said, and "more openness in governance will help citizens." His words could not have been more dissonant to his government's actions. 

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