Why is the Modi Govt Bringing Back Provisions That Can Potentially Threaten an RTI Activist's Life?

Rather than taking steps to protect information seekers, the change in RTI rules, as presented by the government, will make RTI activists more vulnerable to attacks.

With another RTI activist being brutally killed with concrete blocks in Pune on April 9, the Centre’s lackadaisical approach towards implementing the Whistle Blower’s Protection (WBP) Act has been criticised by civil society members. They accused the government of overlooking concerns that have been repeatedly expressed by activists, demanding that urgent steps be taken to curb the growing incidence of attacks on whistleblowers.

The Maharashtra police has arrested 11 people, including a Congress corporator, in connection with the murder of RTI activist Suhas Haldankar, who had continuously raised issues of lapses in the working of Pune’s municipal corporation.

Venkatesh Nayak of the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI) said, with Haldankar’s murder, the total number of RTI activists killed across the country has gone up to 65, while the total number of reported attacks on activists is now nearing 400.

Noting that CHRI had created a Hall of Shame for mapping the attacks on RTI users, Nayak said that of all the attacks that had resulted in murder, 16 had taken place in Maharashtra. Three of took place before the BJP government came to power in the state in October 2014.

Criticising the attack, CHRI has sent a complaint to the National Human Rights Commission to monitor the police investigation. CHRI also urged the Maharashtra State Information Commission to provide responses for all pending RTI applications filed by Haldankar, in the public domain, as per the provisions of the RTI Act.

Abatement of cases

Nayak had earlier cautioned that the draft rules permitting the withdrawal of an application in the event of the applicant’s death will mean higher risks for those filing queries. He said Haldankar was only killed because “he was highlighting the poor state of the civic administration in his area” and was “speaking the truth to power.”

In Haldankar’s case, Nayak said he had refused to give in to intimidation by those he sought to expose. “If Draft RTI Rule 12 proposed by the central government becomes law, every such action will get legitimacy. People seeking to expose corruption or maladministration will be threatened into withdrawing their appeals by vested interests. This is why civil society has been demanding that Draft Rule 12 be dropped entirely,” Nayak reasoned, adding, “Draft Rule 12 that seeks to permit the Central Information Commission to allow appeals to abate on the death of the appellant or for their withdrawal must be dropped without any delay.”

The draft rules have been put out in the public domain by the Department of Personnel and Training, and comments and suggestions have been invited till April 15. The matter of drafting new rules is also pending before the Supreme Court and the next hearing is on May 2.

Protecting whistleblowers

Nayak said that at present, there is no law to protect whistleblowers in India. Though the parliament had approved the Whistle Blower Protection Act in 2011, it has not been implemented. Instead, it had brought new “regressive amendments” to discourage potential whistleblowers from coming forward, and the proposals, which have been approved by the Lok Sabha, are now pending in the Rajya Sabha.

Stating that neither the Act passed by parliament, nor the government’s amendment proposals were designed to protect RTI users and activists from harm, Nayak said the Centre should withdraw the amendments and “bring in a fresh set of proposals to strengthen the whistleblower law to protect people who seek information in public interest or those who seek social justice or defend human rights.”

Another RTI activist, Commodore (Retd.) Lokesh Batra said it was “sad” that rather than taking steps to protect information seekers, the change in RTI rules, as presented by the government, will make RTI users more vulnerable to attacks. Batra has also questioned the need to bring back the rule pertaining to the withdrawal and abatement of appeals, after it was rejected by various government departments and panels in 2011.

Withdrawal and abatement

Bringing out the records on the issue, Batra said, in his comments on the proposed RTI rules that Justice A.P. Shah had in 2011, stated that “the Information Commission is not a civil court and thus the provisions in the CPC relating to abatement of proceedings on the death of the party have no application to the proceedings under the Act.”

He had further stated that the Department of Personnel and Training was “right in contending that the Right to Information is the right of the individual citizen who makes the application and therefore the appeal would come to an end upon his death, but I agree with you, that introducing a provision of this nature in the rules is not at all desirable as it may encourage, in as much as it may result into killing of the appellant”.

Shah had also stated that since the Department of Personnel and Training has agreed to do away with the provision for withdrawal of applications, he finds “nothing objectionable in the rule”.

In fact, former director of the Department of Personnel and Training, K.G. Verma and joint secretary, Rajeev Kapoor had attended a meeting of the working group for the National Advisory Council, chaired by Sonia Gandhi on February 2011, where on the issue of the “abatement of appeal” they had stated  that: “Proposed Rule 16, if regarding abatement of an appeal/complaint on the death of the appellant. The working group expressed the view that the proposed rule should be deleted as it may encourage murder of RTI activists”

They further stated that “it was explained that after the death of the appellant it would not be possible for the commission to give any relief to the appellant”. Noting that Justice Shah had in his opinion, also agreed that this formulation was “legally valid”, the two officials had submitted that “the working group apprehends that if such a provision is explicitly included in the provision, it may encourage threat to life and liberty of RTI activists”

Dropping the provision

Subsequently, Gandhi had sent a letter to former prime minister, Manmohan Singh on March 31, 2011, which stated that the advisory council had recommended that Rule 13, pertaining to the withdrawal of an appeal “be dropped”, and Rule 16, relating to the abatement of proceedings before the commission in the event of death of the appellant “be deleted”.

Thereafter, in a meeting of the Committee of Secretaries convened by the cabinet secretary on November 16, 2011, it was decided that the provision be deleted in accordance with the recommendations of the advisory council. Similarly, the committee had also decided to delete the proposal for the provision to incorporate a rule that proceedings before the commission shall abate on the death of the appellant “as it could result into murder of appellants”.

Despite clear reasoning that led to these two proposals being deleted, RTI activists are surprised that the Narendra Modi government has decided to bring them back in the draft rules 2017.