Seek truth at own peril

RTI applicants in Bihar land in jail

By Alok Gupta
Published: Sunday 28 February 2010

imageSHYAM NARAYAN SHARMA, a retired sergeant of the Indian Air Force, ended up behind bars when he filed a right to information (RTI) application with the block development officer. The 62-year-old retired air force officer was trying to get details of a land fraud involving his paternal property in Patna’s Dulhin Bazaar area. Soon after he filed the application, Sharma and his son were arrested on charges of rioting and breach of peace.

The incident took place in December 2008 and the two were in police lock-up for a day. “All my life I worked for my country. I was only trying to save my paternal property; it was a humiliating experience for a soldier,” said Sharma. He is one of the 52 information seekers across Bihar who have been harassed in the past two years for seeking information under the RTI Act.

Many more cases go unreported, said activists. The Bihar government, though, claims innovations in the RTI  Act like the <i>Jankari</i>  scheme wherein information seekers can submit their queries over phone; the initiative won the national award for e-governance last year. “In reality, the RTI  implementation story in Bihar is scary,” said Praveen Amanullah, an RTI  activist who helped Sharma and a dozen other RTI  applicants obtain bail after they were booked for offences like theft, snatching and rape.

He cited the case of Rambalak Sharma of Lakhisarai district who spent 26 days in custody for asking questions about medicine shortage and absent doctors in Lakhisarai hospital. He was arrested within hours of filing RTI application and charged with outraging the modesty of women staff in the hospital.

Modified act suits officials

A senior official in the state information commission (sic) said RTI  is no longer effective in grievance redressal. “Initially, the N ational Democratic Alliance (nda)  government was entertaining all queries as they exposed the previous Rashtriya Janata Dal government. In the past two years, the RTI  applications are directed at the ruling party, hence the atrocities,” the official said adding the government is trying to render RTI  Act ineffective. For example, the state government decided last November to limit questions in an RTI  petition by charging Rs 10 per query; this applies to people below poverty line also. RTI  activists and opposition leaders have been protesting this move.

There is another instance of faulty implementation of the RTI act. The state chief information commissioner(SCIC), J N Bhatt, retired judge, did not attend office for 10 months after his appointment in October 2008. He even told the state high court he had no wish to assume office when he was directed to file a reply on a public interest petition. Bhatt’s successor, Ashok Kumar Choudhary, assumed office in October 2009. Between then and January 2010, the SCIC has received just seven new RTI petitions, sources said. The SCIC website too has details of RTI applications only till 2007, not thereafter.

Activists are worried by Choudhary’s orders quashing some model orders prepared by the commission earlier to address certain common complaints to speed up disposal of cases. Chaudhary was not available for comments.

Chief minister Nitish Kumar has, meanwhile, asked senior police officials of superintendent rank and above to redress all complaints regarding harassment of RTI applicants. “We are looking into the matter. There are bound to be flaws in an emerging state and these need to be rectified. Police will take appropriate action,” said Kumar.

Asked about arrests of RTI applicants, a senior police officer said the police are bound to make arrests once an FIR is lodged. “If a case of chain snatching is lodged in a police station, the officer-in-charge has to arrest the person named in the complaint,” the officer said adding it is for the court to decide if a person is innocent or not.

Retired air force officer Sharma has managed to prove the fraud involving his property but his legal battle is far from over.


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