Corruption

In India, Whistle-Blowers Pay with Their Lives


The shooter managed with one bullet what dozens of threats had failed to do: Silence Shehla Masood.

Masood, a 38-year-old businesswoman in Bhopal, used public documents obtained under India’s Right to Information Act to expose local political corruption after she kept losing on government contracts. Her still unsolved Aug. 16 murder makes her the 12th Indian killed since January 2010 after invoking the RTI to reveal wrongdoing. Although no official numbers are kept, interviews with law enforcement and victims’ families reveal at least 40 others have been beaten or attacked after filing requests under the six-year-old act.

“When applications are filed, people in government will pass the information on to criminals,” says N. Vikramsimha, a Bangalore-based trustee of the Right to Information Research Center and author of Gateway to Good Governance, a book he wrote on the measure. “The criminal bosses then come after you.”

The violence mars what may be Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s smartest strategy to fight the corruption hobbling the economy. The Right to Information Act allows citizens to ask and receive within 30 days copies of official documents and government databases. Citizens can also ask questions about official activities. Indians have filed more than 500,000 RTI requests in the 12 months through March, and the answers helped lead to the ouster of Maharashtra state’s chief minister and the arrest of three members of the organizing committee of the 2010 Commonwealth Games.

According to 2008 field experiments by Leonid Peisakhin and Paul Pinto, then doctoral candidates at Yale University, filing an RTI request is almost as effective for slum dwellers as paying a bribe to get a new ration card sooner for food and cooking supplies. “This is the most important piece of legislation passed in post-independence India,” said Subhash Agrawal, an RTI activist who successfully campaigned to make Supreme Court judges’ and ministers’ assets public. “It is a tragedy that these people have died, but it is also a sign of how powerful a tool the law is.”

For people living in remote areas, which often have few government officials, making RTI requests poses special risks, says Suhas Chakma, the New Delhi-based director of the Asian Centre for Human Rights. The official dealing with the request faces a conflict of interest in cases that reveal corruption or inefficiencies, since his own job could be jeopardized by releasing the information, he says. “The increase in violence is a direct result of people getting more and more aggressive with their requests,” says Chakma, whose organization collects data on the assaults. “In the beginning, people didn’t realize how powerful this law was. Now everybody knows, even the criminals and the corrupt.”

Eight of the 12 murdered activists lived in remote areas or towns. None lived in the 10 most populous cities. Accounts of the 40 assaults come from interviews with family members and police, as well as local-language newspapers, a database at the Asian Centre for Human Rights, and cases examined by activists at the Jaipur-based Consumer Unity and Trust Society.

One of the victims was policeman Babbu Singh, shot dead after he filed an RTI request about public spending in his village of Katghar, in Uttar Pradesh state. Jagdish Sharma, in the village of Chandrawal in Haryana, was injured and his daughter-in-law killed when the target of his RTI request about local pension funds drove his car into a crowd of protesters. Niyasmat Ansari of the state of Jharkhand collected enough documents about winning bidders for public-works contracts under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act to register official complaints with the police about favoritism in the awards. Three people, including a local development official, were arrested. On Mar. 2, Ansari was dragged from his house and beaten to death, according to a police report filed by his family. The attackers threw copies of his RTI requests at him and his family during the attack, says a cousin who declined to be identified in this story for fear of his life.

Local police don’t pursue complaints vigorously, according to Jaisukh Bambhania, who says he was accosted outside a government office in Una, in Gujarat. He says his assailants stabbed him, beat him with pipes, and threw acid on him on Aug. 21 after he filed an RTI request asking which officials had approved construction of a restaurant in a residential area. Dipankar Trivedi, the superintendent of police in Junagadh district, where Bambhania says the attack took place, says an investigation is under way, and that the attackers Bambhania named have filed a complaint saying they were not in Junagadh on those days.

The Asian Centre for Human Rights is lobbying to include RTI-related assaults in a special category of crimes that trigger fast-track investigations and prosecutions. In the wake of Shehla Masood’s murder, the Information Commission, which coordinates RTI requests to federal agencies, said it would publish any documents sought under RTI by citizens later slain or attacked. “Carrying out attacks will be counterproductive because the information that people want silenced will be published,” says Information Commissioner Shailesh Gandhi.

Masood began filing more RTI requests after her first one showed she was the lowest bidder for contracts to manage state-government social events and yet never won. In later requests she probed environmental issues and government expenses, and shared the responses with newspapers. In January 2010, Masood wrote to the state director general of police and other government officials, including Indian Minister for Home Affairs Palaniappan Chidambaram. She detailed threats to her life that she said were made by a local official, Pawan Shrivastava, over her original bid for a contract. She included a tape recording that she said was of Shrivastava threatening her.

The Home Ministry chose not to act because her letter was directed to the state Director General of Police, says ministry spokesman Onkar Kedia. “There were jurisdictional issues,” he says. Masood later requested a copy of her letter through RTI to see what had become of it. The copy is marked as on file with the Director General of Police’s office in Bhopal. It includes a notation from an unnamed official recommending an investigation into her complaints.

Shrivastava told Bloomberg News by telephone on Oct. 3 that he had no comment. He had previously agreed to meet a reporter in Bhopal, then hung up the phone when the reporter called to make an appointment on Sept. 17. The reporter was denied permission to enter Bhopal police headquarters, where Shrivastava was assigned, on Sept. 20. That day, the reporter’s driver said he was slapped and knocked to the ground in a parking area by two constables after he refused to answer their questions on the reporter’s identity and the location of his hotel.

Masood never received protection, her sister and father say. “She was fighting alone, and while we were obviously worried, we never thought anything like this could happen,” says her father, Sultan.

Three weeks after Shehla Masood bled to death in her car, the investigation was taken from local police and referred to the Central Bureau of Investigation, says Hemant Priyadarshy, deputy inspector general for the CBI office in Madhya Pradesh state. The CBI has interviewed Shrivastava, says Priyadarshy, who is handling the case.

A forensic team found more evidence, including files Masood had with her when she was shot. Masood’s phone records show the police used her cellphone afterward to order food, according to her family and Priyadarshy. The crime “has attracted a lot of attention … because Masood was an RTI activist and also because she was a woman,” he says. “I can assure you, my best men are working on the case.”

The bottom line: Though 1.5 million RTI requests have made Indian government more responsive, the act has also prompted a criminal backlash.

Srivastava is a reporter-at-large for Bloomberg News in London. He also reports for Bloomberg Businessweek.
MacAskill is a reporter for Bloomberg News in New Delhi.

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