As reported by Soumitra Trivedi in livemint.com on 11 August 2010:
Murdered RTI activist
Murdered RTI activist’s legacy to be kept alive
For Bhikhubhai Jethwa, father of slain Right to Information (RTI) activist and environmentalist Amit Jethwa, the government’s move to provide protection to whistle-blowers has come too late.
“I have already lost my son who was so passionate about RTI,” he says.
Bhikhubhai was referring to the draft Public Interest Disclosure and Protection to Persons Making the Disclosure Bill, 2010, that was cleared by the cabinet on Monday.
“The government should have thought about protecting whistle-blowers in 2005 itself when the Right to Information Act was brought in. If such a provision was there, many whistle-blowers wouldn’t have lost their lives,” Bhikhubhai says.
The proposed Bill empowers the Central Vigilance Commission to penalize people revealing the identity of whistle-blowers.
Amit Jethwa was shot dead on 20 July near the Gujarat high court in Ahmedabad by two unidentified men. “Political forces are behind his murder,” alleges Bhikhubhai.
In June, Jethwa had filed a public interest litigation (PIL), one of several by him, in the Gujarat high court alleging that illegal mining activities were being carried out in Una and Kodinar talukas in Junagadh district of Saurashtra region in Gujarat.
The south-western coastal district of Junagadh is home to Asiatic lions and blackbucks, protected species under the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources, an international wildlife conservation body.
Jethwa’s PIL alleged that Dinubhai Boghabhai Solanki, member of Parliament from Junagadh constituency, and his relatives carried out illegal mining on the outskirts of Gir National Park, the 258.71 sq. km core forest area falling in Junagadh and Amreli districts.
Investigations are still being carried out by the police into Jethwa’s murder.
“We have got a few clues in the case indicating that the killing was ordered by people based in the Saurashtra region. We also have some information on one of the attackers. However, we suspect he may have fled the state,” a police official involved in the investigation of Jethwa’s murder said on condition of anonymity.
“They may have killed Amit but they don’t know that Amit has left an army of RTI activists behind him,” his father says. “He has taught the RTI Act to over 4,000 people, out of which 1,500 people are dedicatedly using RTI as a powerful tool to ensure citizens get their rights.”
Jaykant Patadiya, a soft-spoken Amreli-based diamond worker and an RTI colleague of Jethwa, says in Gujarati: “They may have country-made revolvers and political power, but we are armed with 20-rupee notes and a 45-page right to information rule book, which are no less than explosives.” Patadiya, a 37-year-old high school dropout, helps people write RTI applications for problems ranging from the issuing of ration cards to the illegal cutting of trees in the forest area, just like his mentor Jethwa once did.
“I polish diamonds starting from 8 in the morning to 6 in the evening and earn Rs4,000 a month,” he says, adding: “During my one-and-a-half-hour lunch break, I teach the RTI Act to 50 of my co-workers. I will teach them just like Amitbhai taught me. When they (his co-workers) finish learning how to use this weapon then they will go on teaching others, which will be a true tribute to Amitbhai.”
Patadiya says he was desolated by the murder of his mentor who had taught him how to use the RTI Act to get government departments to do their jobs.
“He loved nature and was ready to do anything to protect animals and environment. Amit and I were the founding members of Gir Nature Youth Club (founded in 2000), which has now over 1,100 members and volunteers. Most of these volunteers and members have told us they will not let this movement die,” says Bhagabhai Dhukan, a 44-year-old, Khambha-based goldsmith.
Located 60km from Amreli on the outskirts of the Gir Forest, Khambha was where Jethwa hailed from, having started his professional career as a junior pharmacist in the government health clinic there in 1996, after completing his education. His legacy is a durable one, say associates.
“After Jethwa’s death, we have got calls from many of our members who want to start branches of Mahiti Adhikar Nagarik Mandal (MANM, a voluntary body founded by Jethwa in 2006 to spread awareness on RTI),” says Purshottam Ambaliya, co-convener of MANM, which has 400 members. “Our routine of Sunday meetings at the Khambha office was disturbed only once after Amitbhai was murdered. The routine work has now resumed and it won’t stop.”
MANM officials, along with 10-15 volunteers, meet every Sunday to hear complaints of villagers and help them prepare applications under the RTI Act.
On an average, around 60-70 RTI applications are written every Sunday.
Patadiya is inspired enough to strike out on his own.
“I have decided to start Mahiti Adhikar Nagarik Mandal-Amreli. I don’t have money to rent an office, but I have a spare room at home which will serve as an office,” says Patadiya. “My co-workers at the diamond unit whom I have taught how to go about writing RTI applications have promised to help me in this.”
Jethwa’s colleagues are also thinking of reviving the tiffin meetings, which had started with the inception of MANM and carried on until Jethwa shifted to Ahmedabad in the latter half of 2008 so that he could commute more easily to state capital Gandhinagar and the Gujarat high court. Gandhinagar is 35km from Ahmedabad.
“We are thinking of resuming the tiffin meetings to spread more awareness in the interior villages of Saurashtra,” said Yusuf Juneja, member of MANM and a professional signboard painter.
Tiffin meetings used to be held once a month at different villages in Amreli, Junagadh and Jamnagar districts, where MANM volunteers and villagers used to meet and discuss the RTI Act and share their lunches.
Gujarat high court advocate Vijay Nagesh, Jethwa’s lawyer in the mining PIL, says he will pursue the case. “He was murdered a month after he filed the PIL against the mining mafias. However, this does not mean that his work will stop. I will keep fighting,” Nagesh said. “Bhavin Jethwa (Jethwa’s brother) is now following this case...”
Jethwa had accomplished a great deal through his filings. One of the PILs called for the appointment of more information commissioners as RTI appeals were piling up before the sole official handling the role. PIL forced the government to appoint two more information commissioners, says Nagesh.
Apart from this, in March, government had to revise the rules governing the payment of RTI application fees.
“Earlier, we had to pay fees in the form of a demand draft, a pay order or non-judicial stamp paper. To get demand draft, pay orders and stamp papers, villagers had to travel to the nearest town and spend more for transport as well as charges for issuing demand draft or pay order,” says Patadiya. “Jethwa filed a PIL saying that the government should allow revenue stamps also as the medium of payment as it was easily available at any village post office.”
After Jethwa won, the state government allowed payment of RTI application fees in the form of revenue stamps.
“Amit did what he could to defend democracy, but it is shameful that it is already 21 days since he was killed and the police department has made no progress in this case,” Bhikhubhai says. “No arrests have been made so far. I feel unless CBI (the Central Bureau of Investigation) interferes, this case will also die out soon.”