The dangers of whistle-blowing in India
Whistle-blowing can nearly destroy you in India, as Salim Baig found out for himself.
Until three years ago, he practised ayurvedic medicine in Uttar Pradesh’s Moradabad district, a place better known for its intricate brass work than its sleuthing citizens.
But the softly spoken Mr Baig, publisher of a small newspaper, riled the local authorities so much with his questions that he had to flee his town.
Over the past few years he has used India’s landmark right to information law to file some 4,000 applications.
Mr Baig, 42, has asked questions about so-called “fake encounters” in which alleged suspects are killed by police. He says he has also sought answers about stolen fuel, dangerously derelict railway bridges and controversial government recruitment, among other things.
When he filed an application in 2007 asking for details of police constables who had been hired in Moradabad – he suspected that the jobs had been sold – authorities told him that it would take 148 days and cost him nearly 60,000 rupees (about $1,300) for the information.
The state information commissioner fined the local superintendent of police the equivalent of more than $500 when Mr Baig accused the authorities of stonewalling.
Around this time, Mr Baig filed a couple of right to information applications seeking details of the money spent on roadworks in his area.
The municipality chairman, he says, retaliated by bringing “false cases” of rioting and extortion against him.
The court quashed the cases, and Mr Baig won compensation from the police superintendent.
“I thought I had been vindicated. But that was the beginning of my travails. I realised asking questions was earning me a lot of enemies,” Mr Baig, dressed in brown jacket and cream slacks, tells me in a city in Uttar Pradesh.
He says police revived the two cases against him and even arrested him in June 2008.
Mr Baig now lives with his wife and four children at a relative’s place elsewhere in Uttar Pradesh where I met him.
He lives and works mostly out of a dull, dimly-lit room with green painted walls plastered with newspaper clippings about his freedom of information feats.
Back home in Moradabad, his dispensary is shut and his newspaper defunct after he couldn’t afford the office rent, he says, his eyes welling up.
“My earnings have dried up. My children’s education has come to a halt for the past two years I’ve been away from home,” says Mr Baig.
But a life away from home has not dampened his whistle-blowing zeal.
“I will not let go. I will keep asking questions. It is my right. And it is one chance we all have of changing India,” he says.
Mr Baig is aware that bringing change using a law can be fraught with dangers – some 11 Indians have lost their lives in the past few years for exposing corruption. They are:
- Lalit Kumar Mehta, an activist in Jharkhand, was murdered May 2008. He had exposed corruption in the local jobs-for-work scheme.
- Kameshwar Yadav was gunned down by unknown persons in Jharkhand in June 2008. He had used the right to information law to expose a nexus between officers, politicians, contractors and middlemen in siphoning off government funds meant for irrigation work.
- Venkatesh, a right to information activist from southern Karnataka state whose questions had exposed encroachments on government land, was murdered on 12 April 2009. A local criminal leader was arrested in connection with the killing.
- Satish Shetty, a right to information activist from the western city of Pune, was killed by unidentified men while on a morning walk on 13 January 2010. His questions had exposed land scandals in the area.
- Vishram Laxman Dodiya, a roadside vendor and prolific right to information activist, was hacked to death by three men near his home in Surat in western Gujarat state on 11 February 2010. Three men have been held in connection with the murder.
- Shashidhar Mishra, an activist from Begusarai in the eastern state of Bihar, was shot dead by unknown men as he returned home on 14 February 2010. He had exposed alleged scams in welfare schemes in village councils.
- Sola Ranga Rao, a right to information activist from southern Andhra Pradesh state, was murdered near his home on 11 April 2010.
- Vitthal Gite, an activist from the western state of Maharashtra, was murdered on 18 April 2010, after exposing alleged irregularities in a village school.
- Dattatreya Patil, another activist from Maharashtra, was murdered on 22 May 2010 because of his “right to information activities”.
- Amit Jethwa, an environmentalist working in Gujarat’s Fir forest, was shot dead on 20 July 2010. His applications had revealed illegal mining in the protected forest. A number of people, including a relative of a powerful local MP, have been arrested.
- Ramdas Patil Ghadegaonkar, a milk seller from Maharasthra, was murdered on 27 August 2010. He was using the right to information law to unearth information about illegal dredging of sand from the local Godavari river.
Civil rights groups say the war against corruption has taken a hit because of the rising attacks on whistle-blowers.
“I don’t think this is just a series of incidents that have taken place in the last one or two years. It is becoming a pattern,” says anti-corruption activist Arvind Kejriwal, who has won the prestigious Ramon Magsaysay award for his work.
“These attacks can have a demoralising effect in the crusade against corruption.”
Campaigners are also concerned that the government is sitting on comprehensive anti-corruption bill – drafted by civil rights groups – that activists say would protect whistle-blowers.
“We get the impression that the government is not interested in making it a law. They keep telling us that they have lost the bill and keep asking us for copies,” Mr Kejriwal says.
“The problem is that the people who run the governments are the people who are most threatened by the whistle-blowers. Indian politics is in the hands of a mafia now. Whistle-blowers are being left to fend for themselves.
“The way things are going,” Mr Kejriwal says, “whistle-blowers have to pick up guns to protect themselves.”
This is the second of two features by Soutik Biswas on the dangers facing people using the Right to Information law in India. The first one was India’s perilous road to transparency.
BBC © MMXI