‘Whistleblower Bill is captive to high-profile Lokpal debate’
This is a discussion on ‘Whistleblower Bill is captive to high-profile Lokpal debate’ within the RTI News & Discussion forums, part of the RTI News, Circulars and Decisions category; By Rashme Sehgal in Deccanchronicle.com on Jul 29, 2012 â€˜Whistleblower Bill is captive to high-profile Lokpal debateâ€™ | Deccan Chronicle [Tags: Social activist Aruna Roy ] There is news of ...
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‘Whistleblower Bill is captive to high-profile Lokpal debate’
By Rashme Sehgal in Deccanchronicle.com on Jul 29, 2012
â€˜Whistleblower Bill is captive to high-profile Lokpal debateâ€™ | Deccan Chronicle
[Tags:Social activist Aruna Roy ]
There is news of Right to Information (RTI) activists being attacked all the time. A prominent recent case is that of Ramesh Agrawal in Chhattisgarh. What explains the trend?
Attacks on such activists are part of a deeply worrying trend. Anyone challenging the power nexus of corporate-states-big money is sought to be brutally silenced or clamped down upon. I do believe such attacks are on the rise as the stakes are high. More and more private capital is in search for investment opportunities.
The Jan Chetna Manch, of which Ramesh Agrawal is a part, has been working in Chhattisgarh to ensure environmental compliance and monitor water pollution and social impact issues of different development projects being proposed in the state. Legislations relating to mining, land acquisition and environment laws are heavily dependent on environment impact assessments and social impact assessments being conducted in a free and fair manner.
People like Mr Agrawal, who work at the ground level, mobilise to spread awareness, and to facilitate independent public hearings on which rest crores of rupees, are constantly under threat. Working against huge corporate giants is unfortunately fraught with potential violence as all opposition is sought to be suppressed. Periodic threats have been received by the Jan Chetna Manch for a long time. Violent attacks on Right to Information (RTI) users, who question inefficiency and mala fide governance, are steadily on the increase across the country. In this context, we think it is important that a strong and effective Whistleblower Bill (Public Interest Disclosure and Protection for Persons Making the Disclosure Bill, 2010) be passed immediately in Parliament.
Given such a trend, how should governments respond?
I am worried and distressed by continual attacks on RTI users, and the lack of protection from the system. The RTI is revolutionary and has challenged power equations. It has brought to light massive scams and has had unfortunate repercussions. When the late Prabhash Joshi captioned his editorial in the Jan Satta “Hum Janenge, Hum Jiyenge” (We Will Live If We Know) in 1996, he was referring to the livelihood issues of the poor. Today, the same slogan has a more direct — and diabolical — meaning as people have been killed for using the RTI.
The RTI Act came into force on October 12, 2005. Up till now, the serious attacks (killing, assaults, harassments) on RTI users total 150. More than 15 were fatal attacks. The risk that RTI users face must be taken seriously. As soon as there is an attack on a user, the State Information Commission must immediately disclose suo motu on their website all the information that the threatened user had applied for. The Centre and state governments must also institute effective mechanisms for providing protection to RTI users and anti-corruption crusaders.
Why do you feel the Whistleblowers Protection Bill and the Grievances Redress Bill are being held up? What consequence is this having for activists who expose wrong-doing?
Unfortunately, both the bills have become captive to the more high-profile and politicised Lokpal debate. In fact, the National Campaign for People’s Right to Information (of which Ms Roy is leader) sees Whistleblower Protection independently, and thinks the law to safeguard them should be enacted immediately. Regardless of how long it takes to pass the Lokpal Bill, RTI users and other whistleblowers continue to face immediate threat to their lives.
While the India Against Corruption (the Anna Hazare movement) felt that only the Lokpal can provide effective protection to whistleblowers, the NCPRI saw whistleblower protection as part of a basket of measures and wanted it passed separately. The Whistleblower Bill, that was passed in the Lok Sabha and is pending in the Rajya Sabha, is not, in our opinion, a perfect piece of legislation. But we feel that it should be passed so that RTI users and whistleblowers within the system have some legal protection. We strongly feel that the potential of even one life protected, or some attacks prevented, make it imperative that this Bill be enacted right away.
The Grievances Redress Bill, though less controversial than the Lokpal, will potentially have a far-reaching and lasting impact on issues of accountable governance. The current bill, which has been sent to the Standing Committee, has many fine provisions. With a few amendments, it can really be another legislation that empowers the common person to enforce accountability. In many ways, it is the next generation law that can build on the initial successes of the RTI. In fact, this law will help reduce the pressure on the RTI. In the absence of a grievance redress law, many RTIs are filed as a means to redress grievances.
Not passing these two laws indicates how partisan our political climate has become. It is surprising that there could be opposition from any political party to these bills. The government needs to make their passage an immediate priority, and put them up for enactment in the upcoming Monsoon Session of Parliament. The Opposition must support their passage. As the RTI has shown, political workers themselves are amongst the most frequent users of transparency and accountability legislations.
Has the National Advisory Committee (headed by Sonia Gandhi), of which you are a member, officially taken note of the rising violence against RTI activists?
The NAC has not officially taken up the issue of attacks on RTI users, although I have personally submitted petitions to the chairperson which have been forwarded to the relevant departments in state governments. However, real protection cannot come from the NAC but from an effective Whistleblower Protection law being passed which will afford some protection to people seeking information and fighting corruption. Finally, this depends on the political will to act against vested interests. For that we will have to put pressure through every forum, including the NAC.