On July 18, 2017, Rajesh Savaliya, a 31-year-old activist, left his home in Surat, India to visit a friend’s construction site. The next day, he was found severely injured on the side of a highway, and doctors pronounced him dead later that day. Mr. Savaliya was murdered because of his attempts to expose corruption in his hometown schools, including the education mafia extracting money from students and schools operating without proper licenses and approval letters. As part of his campaign to expose this corruption, Mr. Savaliya had filed multiple requests for information about the local schools pursuant to India’s Right to Information Act (RTI). Sadly, Mr. Savaliya’s story is not unique: Since 2005, over 60 activists have been killed, and hundreds of others have been assaulted or harassed, for filing RTI requests.
Freedom of Information laws like India’s RTI Act can be a powerful pro-transparency tool for combating corruption and mismanagement in government. The RTI Act, which was adopted following a nationwide grassroots campaign, provides every Indian citizen the right to request information from a public authority—a right which is invoked by 4–6 million citizens each year. Yet the RTI Act is unlikely to be effective in exposing serious corruption—especially in cases where criminal elements have infiltrated or coopted state organs—unless those filing RTI requests are adequately protected and insulated from intimidation.
Not only are current protections for RTI requesters inadequate, but India seems, if anything to be moving in the wrong direction. Early this year, as a part of a package of proposed updates to the rules governing the RTI Act, India’s Department of Personnel and Training (DoPT) proposed a new rule (Rule 12), which would allow RTI requestors to withdraw their appeals of decisions refusing disclosure, and would also require all such appeals to terminate upon the death of the requestor. Proposed Rule 12 has been widely criticized (see here, here, and here), in part because these changes would further incentivize threats and violence against RTI requesters like Rajesh Savaliya. As the Human Rights Initiative noted, “Draft Rule 12 will only legitimize such attacks and embolden vested interests who wish to keep corruption and maladministration under wraps.”
Instead of adopting counterproductive measures like Draft Rule 12, the DoPT and Indian Parliament should instead amend the Act and governing rules to better promote the safety and security of RTI requesters. Here are three potential changes—in order of likelihood of success and impact—that would serve this objective:
- First, the DoPT should discard Draft Rule 12 and replace it with a rule that has the opposite effect: the rule should specify that appeals of RTI denials may not be withdrawn after they are filed, and furthermore, the Central Information Commission (CIC), which handles these appeals, should release requested information in the case of the death of a requestor. (The latter is actually consistent with the CIC’s current practice: According to a 2011 CIC resolution, if an appellant is assaulted or murdered during the course of an appeal, the Commission will “order the concerned Department(s) to publish the requested information suo motu [on their own accord] on their website.”)
- Second, the DoPT should adopt additional RTI Rules that mandate protection, investigations, and judicial proceedings for RTI filers. The police and judiciary often do little to protect RTI filers, and cases are filed in fewer than half of the murders, assaults, and harassments of RTI filers. However, the legal system can be a beacon of hope. For example, in 2016 the Bombay High Court ordered the government to provide security for RTI filers who complain of harassment, and ordered the government to conduct an investigation into the murder of RTI filer Sumaira Abdulali. Similarly, the DoPT could adopt rules based on proposals from the Asian Centre for Human Rights, which suggest that if an RTI filer reports threats or violence, a judge should within 24-hours issue “necessary directions for physical protection of those under threats or their families.” The Centre also advocates a rule that threats should be investigated by a high-ranking police officer and that the trial of the accused should occur within six months.
- Third, the Indian Parliament should consider amending the RTI Act itself to proactively protect filers from violence and harassment. Such amendments could include the following measures: (1) Creation of a mechanism to protect the identifying information of filers, along the lines of the Whistleblower Protection Act, which provides that the relevant authority shall conceal “the identity of the complainant and the documents or information furnished by him” unless “it became necessary to reveal or produce the same by virtue of the order of the court.” (2) Creation of a specific new criminal offense for those who threaten or conduct violence against RTI filers—as has also been proposed for the Whistleblower Protection Act. (3) A requirement that the CIC investigate all threats and violence against RTI filers. (Such investigations, which the CIC already has the power to conduct, would likely be more effective than investigations by local prosecutors and police, because the CIC is less susceptible to corruption and bribery, has greater access to resources, and has an expertise and familiarity in dealing with such investigations.)
These are a few of many potential reforms that both the DoPT and Parliament can adopt to address threats, harassment, and murders of RTI advocates. The RTI Act plays a unique and important role in combating corruption in India, and the safety of those using the Act is paramount. Protection is far overdue for people like Rajesh Savaliya and the hundreds of others who have been threatened, harassed, and murdered for engaging in their basic, democratic duty.