If a single panchayat-level activist can expose corruption worth Rs 25 lakh, then each needs protection for effective implementation of development schemes, reasons rural development ministry
The Union rural development ministry is working on a protocol that will protect activists who work to expose corruption using the Right to Information (RTI) Act. Activists exposing corruption cases often face harassment from government officers and local goons, or are implicated in false cases. According to the National Campaign for People’s Right to Information (NCPRI), nearly 174 cases of murder and harassment of RTI activists have been recorded in the past four years.
D K Jain, joint secretary in charge of government's flagship scheme, the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA), in the rural development ministry, told Down To Earth the protocol is likely to include directions to state governments to provide security to the activists on priority basis.
“We are trying to work out whether provision 27(2) of MGNREGA can be utilised to provide protection to activists,” says Jain. Provision 27 (2) empowers the Union government to give specific directions to the state government for effective implementation of the scheme. Sub-section F of provision 27 of the Act allows state governments to formulate rules to improve the scheme.
The ministry is also considering a compensation package to family members of RTI activists who are murdered in their bid to expose corruption.
Ministry officials point out that RTI activists across the country are doing a commendable job of exposing corruption in development schemes. A large number of instances of corruption have been exposed in the flagship employment scheme of the UPA government, the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA).
Big money in Bihar
In recent months, RTI activists have exposed a slew of cases of corruption at the panchayat level where,on average, the mukhiya (panchayat head) has control over the expenditure of Rs 60 to 80 lakh. The murder of Ram Kumar Thakur of Ratnauli village in Muzaffarpur district in Bihar is a case in point. Thakur had exposed corruption worth Rs 25 lakh in the employment scheme.
Shiv Prakash, an RTI activist in Bihar, claims that RTI activists in Bihar alone have exposed corruption worth Rs 200 crore. “Majority of activists who were harassed and murdered have taken on corrupt officials and mukhiyas swindling MGNREGA funds,” he says.
Bihar alone has recorded more than 300 cases of harassment of activists. Farzand Ahmad, state information commissioner, has shot off numerous letters to the state home department, seeking protection for activists.
Appalled by the Thakur’s murder and the state government’s inability to provide compensation to the family of the deceased, Union rural development minister Jairam Ramesh in a letter to the chief minister of Bihar, Nitish Kumar,
had demanded immediate arrest of those who murdered the RTI activists and compensation package for the families of deceased activists.
The rural development ministry is of the opinion that if a single panchayat level activist can expose corruption worth Rs 25 lakh, then each and every such activist needs to be protected for effective implementation of development schemes.
Courts take cognisance
High courts across the country have been directing state governments to formulate rules for the safety of RTI activists. The Karnataka High Court, taking cognizance of the murder of RTI activist Lingaraju and Vasudeva Adiga in 2012, directed the state government to prepare protection rules for such activists.
The Patna High Court, too, recently rapped the state government for curtailing the rights of RTI activists. The Bihar state information commission had denied rights to RTI activists for a second appeal. The court directed the state information commission to immediately restore the second appeal rights.
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