Attacking the right to ask

ARUNA ROY in Indian Express, Saturday, June 14, 2008

The killing of activist Lalit Mehta in Jharkhand was a diabolical
warning to those who question, write ARUNA ROY and NIKHIL DEY

The thousand-strong gathering at the Theological College grounds in
Ranchi on June 10 had no doubts over why Lalit Mehta was killed. The
36-year-old engineer turned activist, had no personal enemies or
battles. He was a prominent member of The Right to Food Campaign,
working in the Vikas Sahyog Kendra in Palamou District, Jharkhand. All
he had done was access National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA)

expenditure records for researchers verifying official records against
field data. On May 14, a day before the planned Social Audit of those
works, he was brutally murdered. His face was disfigured, and his body
badly mutilated. A diabolical warning to those who question.

The police, with unseemly haste, buried the unidentified body,
carrying it back 25 kilometres to the scene of the crime, after a
hurriedly conducted post-mortem. But the murder did not stop the
research. Twelve days later, the social audit established that a large
proportion of the Rs 73 crore spent in the district had been siphoned
off by contractors, officials and the well-entrenched development
mafia. The people of Palamou knew that their entitlements were being
pocketed by the corrupt. But they have been helpless victims.

The NREGA has provided an entitlement for the first time. The RTI has
given a tool to uncover corrupt practices. The Social Audit is a
mandatory process, under the NREGA Act, giving the people a chance to
establish the truth and push for change. For the first time a corrupt
mafia is threatened by a legally mandated process, which looks at
details and places irrefutable documentary proof in the public domain.

The corrupt nexus is reacting with pre-meditated, calculated violence.
It is not just Lalit Mehta. There are reports of threats to activists
seeking information from different parts of the country. In Rajasthan,
Social Audit teams have faced planned attacks in the districts of
Banswara and Jhalawar, in the last six months. According to
K.N.Tripathi, member of the State Employment Guarantee Council of
Jharkhand, Somay Gagarai, the District Convenor of the Congress, for
NREGA West Simbhum was killed about two months ago, for trying to
access facts on NREGA expenditure in his Block, through an RTI

Twenty-six days after Lalit's murder, Kameshwar Yadav, a
CPI Liberation NREGA activist was killed in Giridih District,
Jharkhand for similar reasons. In Orissa's Koraput District, Narayan
Hareka, Naib Sarpanch and member of the Orissa Adibasi Manch, was run
down by a tractor on his way home, after he had spent a day trying to
get NREGA information from the Block Office.

On June 10, 3,000 people marched through Ranchi asking for justice and
truth. They wanted the CBI to probe both the murder and the NREGA
corruption in Palamou. They demanded that accountability be fixed and
the guilty be booked.

The Indian Express on June 13 carried a story on the reports of the
Collector and the SP (District Palamau) on the murder of Mehta and the
social audit going on in the district. Apart from a range of other
alleagtions, their reports accuse Jean Dreze and others of attempting
to malign the state government and falsifying statements. This
objectionable report is yet another reason why a CBI inquiry should be
instituted immediately. Jean Dreze is a member of the NREG Council and
is mandated to help audit the scheme by the law of the land. What he
did was legitimate and legal. It is absurd that he is being accused by
responsible government officers in this fashion.

Social audit and RTI are legal provisions created to encourage people
participation, with an obligation on the state to enable such
participation. If the state becomes a mute spectator to attacks on
activists using these provisions it is no less than leading lambs to
the slaughter. The State must act decisively to make sure that all
these efforts result in the strongest action against corruption and
violence. The rest of us must ensure that they do so now.

The writers are NREGA-RTI activists and founding members of the
Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan. Aruna Roy was in the IAS between 1968
and 1975 :: Attacking the right to ask