After the murder of RTI activist Ranjan Kumar Das—whose body was found with multiple injuries near his home in Odisha on February 1—former civil servants have written to Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik demanding action and protection for RTI users.
Das, who was convener of the district unit of Odisha Jana Suchana Adhikar Abhijan of Talasanga village, was killed under suspicious circumstances on January 31. His body was found the next day with injury marks along with his motorcycle in a ditch at Berua village of Kendrapada district.
In December 2019, another RTI activist Abhimanyu Pandya from Kandhamal was found dead under equally suspicious circumstances.
“We are dismayed at the repeated number of RTI activists facing violent threats and
even losing their lives to violent, criminal elements in your state,” says the letter to the CM.
Initiated by social activist Aruna Roy along with Harsh Mander and Sundar Burra, the letter condemns the numerous attacks on RTI users/activists across the country since the inception of the Right to Information (RTI) Act, 2005.
The letter also asserts Article 19 (right to freedom of speech), 14 (right to equality) and 21 (right to life).
Dated February 9, 18 former civil servants are signatories to the letter.
“Odisha has increasingly become one of the most dangerous spaces for RTI users. As responsible citizens and as ex-members of government, we strongly condemn this brutal murder,” says the letter.
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“The response of the Government of Odisha should therefore counter the threat being passed by these attacks. The government must respond not just by apprehending the murderers, but also by taking measures to prevent such attacks in the future, and ensure that RTI users are protected.”
In a release accompanying the letter, Aruna Roy stated that “the Centre and State governments should view this murder as a systemic issue.” Roy played a key role in the struggle for the enactment of the RTI Act and is co-founder of the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan.
Over the years, Das had used the RTI Act to expose corruption among local officials and public institutions. Before he was killed, he been seeking information on and raising his voice against illegal sand quarries and brick kilns. Several RTI activists and social workers surmise that this might have been the reason he was murdered.
Two years ago, he had exposed the illegal construction of a resort by the Odisha Tourism Development Corporation (OTDC) in Bhitarkanika National Park. He also exposed the misappropriation of Rs 25 lakh that the Integrated Coastal Zone Management (ICZM) allotted to an NGO in the area.
“The police investigation as also a civil society fact-finding mission will surely bring
out the facts of the case,” says the letter, adding, “Though we cannot, at this stage, say so with certainty till the reports are out, it appears to us as if the probable reason for his murder arises from an attempt to silence his commitment to highlight corrupt practices. It is a matter of grave concern that activists who use legal and constitutional means to expose criminal acts, among other kinds of corruption are being systematically targeted.”
Meanwhile, however, it is reported that police have already dubbed the death of Ranjan Kumar Das as “road accident”. His family and RTI activists are not buying this explanation, and leading RTI activist Pradip Pradhan said they would petition the Orissa High Court soon for a CBI probe into the case.
The letter by former civil servants goes on to state, “These killings are dangerous both in terms of personal loss of human life as well as the message that they are meant to send to people who work untiringly for justice, transparency, and accountability.”
The former civil servants have urged the Odisha government to implement administrative and legislative measures to protect the RTI activists who are committed to exposing corruption and promoting accountability.
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The signatories have demanded that the following steps be taken by the Odisha government to protect RTI users/activists:
1) Passage and effective implementation of the Whistle Blowers Protection Act.
2) RTI activists should be seen as whistle blowers and human rights defenders, and their families should receive support and compensation in case of death.
3) Measures undertaken by the MoRD (Ministry of Rural Development) for MGNREGA [under Section 27 (2) – regarding receipt of complaints about lack of effective implementation of provisions of the Act] should become state government policy for every department — so that the issues themselves are thoroughly investigated and the RTI users’ objective of exposing and eliminating corruption continues beyond the attack.
These measures include establishing complaint cells and ensuring safety of the enquiry officers and complainants/whistleblowers.
4) The State government must make efforts to implement Section 4 (1)(b) of the RTI Act, whereby public authorities must provide information suo motu to the public.