The killing of RTI activist Bhupendra Vira in Mumbai for allegedly exposing illegal land deals and constructions has once again brought into focus the need to provide adequate protection to whistleblowers and the dilly-dallying of the Modi government on the issue. According to RTI activists, not only did the Modi government dilute the provisions of Bill, it also stalled the implementation of the Whistle Blowers Protection (WBP) Act that was passed by parliament and received the assent of the president on May 9, 2014, by moving an amendment Bill and not following it up properly.
Activists claim that the Centre has also not got the amendment Bill reviewed by a special committee, as had been demanded by some members in the Rajya Sabha, where it had gone after being passed by the Lok Sabha in May 2015.
The passage of the Bill or implementation of the original Act would have provided greater security to RTI activists, including Vira, who sought police protection on several occasions after receiving repeated threats from the land mafia.
Section 5(1) of the WPB Act stated: “Under the Act, upon receiving a disclosure, the competent authority is required to:
i) Ascertain the identity of the complainant, and
ii) Conceal the identity of the complainant, unless the complainant has himself revealed his identity
The Act had also laid out strict penalties for the disclosure of the identity of the complainant. It had stated:
“Any person, who negligently or malafidely reveals the identity of a complainant shall, without prejudice to the other provisions of this Act, be punishable with imprisonment for a term which may extend up to three years and also to fine which may extend up to fifty thousand rupees.”
The Mumbai police have arrested two persons, including a former corporator, in connection with the killing of 60-year-old Vira, who is believed to have been shot from close range at his residence.
His former colleague, social activist Anjali Damania, has been quoted as saying that Vira was attached to a citizen’s group, ‘Voice of Kalina’, and had along with other members been combating the menace of encroachments, illegal structures and land mafia in and around Kalina by filing RTIs. Several members of the group, including Vira, had lodged complaints with the Vakola police station on receiving threats from the local mafia.
But the police did not provide any protection to Vira. Responding to the development, rights group Satark Nagrik Sangathan commented on its Facebook page: “Protecting whistleblowers is moral responsibility of govt. Why is @pmoindia not implementing the whistleblower law?”
According to Anjali Bharadwaj, founder of the Satark Nagrik Sangathan, instead of promulgating rules to operationalise the WBP Act, the Centre moved an amendment Bill in parliament in May 2015, which seeks to severely dilute the Act.
“The amendment Bill was brought to Lok Sabha without any public debate on the contents of the Bill. RTI requests seeking information on the nature of amendments were denied to citizens. The text of the amendment Bill was only made public on May 11, 2015, once it was introduced in Lok Sabha. During the debate in the Lok Sabha, MPs from various parties including the Congress, CPI (M), BJD, Shiv Sena, AITC, TRS and NCP objected to the dilution of the law and many of them asked for the Bill to be referred to a standing committee. However, their request was ignored and the Bill was passed by the Lok Sabha on May 13, 2015,” Bharadwaj said.
Subsequently, the National Campaign for People’s Right to Information, of which Bharadwaj is also a member, had written letters to members of the Rajya Sabha demanding that a special committee be set up to adequately review the Bill.
The Bill was taken up for discussion and passage in Rajya Sabha on December 7, 2015. Several MPs moved amendments and demanded that the Bill be referred to a select committee. However, the discussion could not be concluded due to paucity of time.
But what has troubled the RTI activists the most is the vagueness of the Centre’s intention towards the Bill. As Bharadwaj pointed out, “The current status of the WBP Amendment Bill is not clear – on April 28, 2016, minister of state in the prime minister’s office, Jitendra Singh stated in reply to a question in parliament stated that the Whistle Blowers Protection Amendment Bill had been sent to a committee. However, in response to an RTI application, the Rajya Sabha secretariat has stated on August 16, 2016, that the Bill is not pending with any parliamentary committee.”
In such a scenario, she believes it would only be fit that the government clarifies the status of the Bill.
Incidentally, while coming out with a two-year report card on the Modi government, NCPRI had elaborated how the BJP regime had in fact undermined the “existing legislations and mechanisms” pertaining to right to information during its rule.
It had then claimed that the amendments to the WBP Act moved by the Centre “seeks to remove safeguards available to whistleblowers from prosecution under the Official Secrets Act and also introduces wide-ranging exclusions by stating that disclosures should not contain information which would prejudicially affect the sovereignty, integrity, security, strategic, scientific or economic interests of the state.”
The NCPRI had claimed that over 60 RTI activists had been killed in the last few years for exposing corruption and wrongdoing.
To the government, it seems, the death of Vira is just an addition to that tally.