Information at a cost

RTI activists face threat to life & run from pillar to post for justice but see little hope of govt help

On February 12, three RTI activists sent a letter to the governor of the state urging him to ensure their safety as well as the security of other whistleblowers in the state.
The three activists — Doria Shabong, Overwell Lyngdoh and Krongding Nongbsap — have dug out too much dirt in the system using the Right to Information (RTI) Act tool, and hence, have become targets of corrupt officials and village body members.
In India, including the state of Meghalaya, brutally attacking, ostracising or even killing RTI activists is not new. In the beginning of this year, an activist in Manipur was abducted and tortured by the NSCN-Isac Muivah faction for filing an RTI query on dispersal of funds for development projects in the state. Last year, several activists across the country were either killed or assaulted for seeking facts. At home, senior activist Agnes Kharshiing was attacked by goons of coal miners in East Jaintia Hills in 2018 for digging deeper into the illegal coal trade. In the same year, one RTI activist from Khliehriat in East Jaintia Hills, Poipynhun Majaw, was murdered. In most of these cases, the perpetrators are either at large or have not been convicted.
It is, therefore, natural that the three activists, all of whom have families with children, were unnerved by the threats they were getting following their RTI queries. This is despite the fact that right to information is the basic right of citizens protected by the Constitution. In the words of PN Bhagwati, former chief justice of India, “The right to information or access to information is basic to the democratic way of life. In fact, real democracy cannot function without a free and unfettered exercise of this right.”

Joyous moment

In a democracy, people’s participation in governance is an important aspect. However, for many years after independence, the Indian government followed in the footsteps of its colonial rulers and maintained secrecy. In 2002, the Freedom of Information bill, the predecessor of the RTI Act, was passed by both the Upper and Lower houses. The revised bill on Right to Information Act was finally passed in the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha in May 2005. It became operational on October 12, 2005.
It was a joyous moment for activists as well as common citizens of the country and this ushered in a new era in the Indian democratic system. Transparency in the running of the government and accountability were a long-awaited demand. Now, any citizen, under the act, can seek information about most of the government departments.
But the Centre and the state’s apathy to take action on the irregularities and the system’s sluggishness in punishing assailants for attacks on activists made the RTI route a treacherous one. Despite this, numerous activists, empowered by their fundamental right, have continued their quest for the truth.
In Meghalaya, a group of activists — including Michael Syiem, Angela Rangad and Agnes Kharshiing — under the banner Meghalaya Right to Information Movement started their awareness drive on the act in 2002, much before the act came into force. In 2005, the activists filed the state’s RTI query on the Khyndailad beautification project. It was the beginning and several RTI queries were filed since then by local activists.
With the RTI power came adversities in the form of threats and slurs, which gradually turned violent. “Many said that I had taken money and blackmailed people. I never bothered about these maligning as I knew I had done nothing like that. In fact, I challenged those people and asked them to bring proof,” said Syiem.
Pointing at the silver lining, Kharshiing said it is a good sign that many people are coming forward to use this tool to unearth the anomalies in the government departments and this is because “many people in the state are aware of the act and the power they have as citizens”.

Cost of truth

In the recent years, violence against RTI activists in the state has increased, the latest being excommunication of Thrina Suchen, an RTI activist from Lama village in East Jaintia Hills.
The 37-year-old activist was ostracised by the village dorbar because she refused to cough up Rs 5,000 in penalty for filing an RTI query on the rural jobs scheme. She exposed corruption in the implementation of MGNREG projects in her village.
The RTI query by Suchen, a mother of seven, revealed that out of Rs 1,56,000 sanctioned for construction of 13 toilets, only Rs 47,067 was deposited in the bank accounts of the job card holders whereas for the material, the amount shown was nil. Similarly, for construction of the anganwadi house, Rs 2.76 lakh was deposited as wages and Rs 1 lakh out of Rs 7 lakh was spent on materials.
Now, everyone in the village keeps a distance from her and she cannot even commute in local public transport. “Yesterday, I wanted to get into a Sumo in my village but the driver refused saying there was no seat. I could see empty seats in the car,” she said, adding that she was initially scared as no one was buying vegetables and groceries from her shop.
When asked whether she was conversant with the various clauses of the act, Suchen said, “I know that I can file RTI and I cannot be stopped from doing that.”
Shabong, a resident of Umryngka in Upper Shillong, is a single mother and lives in a rented house. An attack by members of the village employment council (VEC) last October left her shaken. “I have a daughter (who suffers from hearing impairment) and I fear for her life. I don’t care if I am attacked but what if they do something to my daughter,” her voice quivered.
Shabong filed the first RTI queries in 2018 to find out the anomalies in the schemes for persons with disabilities and Swachh Bharat. “There were so many schemes for the disabled but none reached the beneficiaries. What happened to the money? I have the right to know,” the 32-year-old activist said.
Last year, she unearthed discrepancies in MGNREG schemes in the village and has proof of wrongdoing by the VEC chairman and village headman, Stephan Lyngdoh, who has “facilitated benefits under MGNREGA to his family members”.
Recently, the village community called a press conference and condemned Shabong and her activities. “The cement footpath under MGNREGA was constructed only after I filed the RTI query. It was a 2017-18 project and was left incomplete. However, completion certificate was already issued,” she said, still shaken from the turn of events.
The humiliation and excommunication is not always from outside but family members and relatives often castigate activists for being vocal. Shabong’s relatives have disowned her. So have Suchen’s whose relatives wanted the dorbar to excommunicate her.
Overwell Lyngdoh of Sohiong village also met with the same fate when he tried to expose the misconducts. “I took to RTI when I found discrepancies in MDC schemes. I went to the block office but none cooperated and kept passing the buck. When I did not get information from them, I filed an RTI query,” he said.
The 38-year-old activist works with a few like-minded people and together they take up issues in Sohiong, Kyntong Wahlang and Mawkneng villages. “There was an open dorbar last November that was organised by the VEC chairman, who is also the headman. There were two groups — one supporting me and the other supporting the VEC members. They issued an excommunication notice against me and my family and we were asked to leave the village. But we did not leave. I have lodged a complaint with the deputy commissioner,” he narrated his ordeal.
Among other RTI activists working with Lyngdoh are Simon Jarain, Kortis Ranee and Raja Thabah.
According to Lyngdoh, the main problem is that the BDO office does not cooperate and the earlier BDO would never give any information. However, he was lucky to have the gram sevak beside him and with its help, he fought back. The BDO was later transferred to Mawsynram.

Is the govt listening?

No, the government neither listens to the activists’ pleas nor takes action on RTI findings of fund misappropriation. Appeals were made at various levels in the government but no step was taken to ensure safety of the RTI activists.
Several cases of MGNREGA anomalies have come to light recently in Khasi, Jaintia and Garo Hills, and in most of the cases, there was connivance between the VEC members and block officials. Even after repeated requests and demands, action has remained elusive.
There has been no intimation from the chief information commissioner (CIC) too. In fact, the amended RTI Act of 2019 has been widely criticised for curtailing the role of the CIC.
A set of questions was submitted in the CIC Shillong office and the same was also sent on his phone. But no answer came from the CIC.
“The information commissioner cannot ensure the activists’ safety. No one can stop people from filing RTI queries and none can avoid threats,” Syiem observed.
Syiem also said that during their time, the state did not have a Lokayukta, the anti-corruption body, so “we could never try that”. He added that with the Lokayukta, though not in full capacity, in place, there is always hope for redressal. In fact, the Lokayukta has already taken up a few cases of corruption found through RTI queries.

Fight is on

Syiem was right — there is no force that can stop citizens from seeking information from the government and the State has to answer. But scepticism among common people, members of which are coming forward to file RTI queries, remains.
“I am worried that they may attack but if the government protects, I will continue to file RTI queries because I know too much money has been siphoned off,” said Suchen.
Shabong has the same fear. While she is not scared to fight, it was the safety of her daughter that worries her. She and the other two signatories on the letter to the governor were supposed to meet the East Khasi Hills deputy commissioner on February 19 and travelled all the way to the city for the appointment. But they could not.
With the state government taking the critical problem so reluctantly, it is only natural that the confidence of local RTI activists will be weakened. If a citizen is harassed for demanding his or her fundamental right, then the government’s intention needs to be questioned. And if one is killed for speaking out the truth, then the blood is on the government’s hands.

~ NM

(With inputs from Philip Marwein)