With the murder of Bhupendra Vira, the focus on attacks against RTI activists is back and rightly so. More and more such attacks have been happening since the Right to Information Act came into force and became a tool in the hands of the common man to expose any wrongdoing by public servants and people in powerful positions.
When Satish Shetty, an RTI activist from Pune, was murdered in 2010 for exposing illegal grabbing of public land through his RTI queries, the Bombay High Court decided to take suo motu cognisance of the issue.
The state government informed the court in March 2015 that a Witness Protection Bill was being brought mooted. To this, the court stated, in its order dated March 10, 2015, that it would be “ideal” if the protection were extended to RTI activists, social activists and whistleblowers. However, the Maharashtra Witness Protection Bill draft submitted before the court stated that protection will only be provided to witnesses who depose in a trial for serious offences, where the accused is awarded death penalty or life sentence.
In December 2015, a bench headed by Justice Abhay Oka said: “We are of the view that protection cannot be restricted only in relation to serious offences. We are also of the view that protection must be extended to investigating officials and other witnesses who are in police service.”
The bench had also said that protection must be extended to all offences punishable by sessions court as well.
Vira’s death may have shifted the focus back on such attacks but ultimately this is a problem that only the state government can deal with effectively. A TOI report details nine such murders that have taken place in the state since 2010. Most of them were a result of RTI queries about illegal construction and land grabbing.
A revised draft was submitted before the court in February this year. Although it was different from the previous draft, it still sought to apply protection only in case of serious offences. This was the last hearing that took place in the case, there hasn’t been any further development. It has been five years and the state government is yet to incorporate suggestions by the court. Time and again, orders have been passed, but to no avail.
This article has been made possible because of financial support from Independent and Public-Spirited Media Foundation.