Op-Ed: Dying to Know

BY PATSY PALMER,

Tallahassee Attorney

Before he was murdered, Niyamat Ansari ran a help center for desperately poor laborers in rural eastern India. He helped them apply for jobs in a public works program named for Mahatma Gandhi. He led a drive to ensure that workers were paid their promised wages. And when he became suspicious that program funds were being diverted illegally, he used the country’s Right to Information law (RTI) to demand public records that helped him expose embezzlement by government contractors.

Thugs associated with the contractors attacked Mr. Ansari and police jailed him for a time on false charges. But he kept working to have corrupt officials removed and predatory contractors blacklisted. Then the death threats began. His neighbors were warned not to help him, so Mr. Ansari appealed to local officials for protection, but they ignored him. Finally, on March 2, a gang of men dragged the 35-year-old father of three from his house, tied him to a tree, and caned him for more than an hour. Police reportedly refused to respond to his family’s calls for help. When the attackers finally left, family members carried Mr. Ansari six miles to an ambulance, but he died on reaching the hospital.

Mr. Ansari died a human rights martyr. The concept that seeking and receiving government information is a fundamental right has roots in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. As RTI advocate Aruna Roy has stated: “All human rights depend on the basic right to know, to demand accountability.”

The RTI — which began in a grassroots campaign to open records so laborers could be paid for work that officials denied had been done – overturned a tradition of official secrecy dating back to the British Raj. Every Indian now has the right to access almost all government-held information. Officials who are slow in answering requests, or who do not produce information, are subject to fines or dismissal.

The response has been overwhelming. Since the law took effect in October 2005, more than two million requests have been filed, many by the poor and uneducated. RTI advocates have used songs and puppet shows as well as brochures and community meetings to teach people about the law. A national convention, which will take place from March 10 to 12, will expand the pool of advocates who help illiterate Indians file requests. The RTI application is simple and straightforward, and the one-rupee fee (approximately 20 cents) is waived for applicants who fall below the poverty line.

By all accounts, the very act of seeking information has transformed individual lives. In Ms. Roy’s words:  “People need to know why their names are not on ration cards. How much sugar, kerosene or grain [they can receive]. They need to know what medicines are free. How many doctors should come and when.” Merely asking what has happened to housing applications or pension requests filed years before often jogs unresponsive bureaucrats to action. And for many Indians, filing an RTI request is their first experience in self-rule. 

RTI activists pose a more immediate threat to the balance of power. Activists often file numerous requests and piece together information in an attempt to force systemic change. One of the earliest RTI victories was a shake-up of the national food-distribution program. Another came when a sewer system was hooked up in a Delhi slum – 24 years after the pipes were laid. Indians recently have asked about tainted vaccines, pesticide contamination of crops and water, and the treatment of death row inmates. 

At least 16 activists have been murdered and scores more attacked or jailed for using the law to uncover bureaucratic fraud and incompetence and corrupt relationships between government officials and private interests. One activist was shot to death in July after he tried to stop illegal mining in a national park where most of India’s remaining Asiatic lions live. Another was hacked to death last year for refusing to withdraw an inquiry about electricity distribution. Many more killings and beatings are thought to have been deliberately misreported by police as crimes unrelated to RTI activism. 

Persecution of activists is growing, with 10 murders reported in 2010 and at least one this year in addition to Mr. Ansari’s: In February, after RTI documents linked a village official in northern India to the disappearance of old-age pensions, the official killed one woman and injured other villagers when he drove over protesters who were lying on the ground to block his vehicle.

And on March 7 an official in northwestern India attacked an activist with an axe for seeking records about another jobs program; though severely wounded, that activist survived.

Yet the biggest threat to the RTI is not brutality, but a failure to fund and staff the program adequately. By some estimates, the backlog of inquiries will be so large by 2015 that it will take as much as six years – rather than the mandatory 30 days – to answer requests. Special interests and some politicians also want to limit the law by exempting more information from disclosure. A former Indian Supreme Court chief justice, whose tax returns were sought under an RTI request, now argues that the entire court system should be exempt because the law threatens judicial independence.

The U.S. should use its influence under a partnership on open government signed last November by President Obama and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to urge India to fully and promptly implement the law, to resist unnecessary exemptions, and to extend protection to threatened activists. A right that people are willing to die for should not be strangled by government indifference or hostility.

And citizens in this country should be inspired by courageous Indians like Niyamat Ansari. At a time when Americans often passively allow governments to close public records under the rationale of “security” or “privacy,” the Indian experience should remind us not to be so cavalier about abandoning our own fundamental right to information.

Patsy Palmer is an attorney and former newspaper journalist who practices law in Tallahassee, Florida.