Whistleblowers Murdered in India Show Fatal Hazard of Exposing Corruption

Bloomberg/Businessweek, October 20, 2011

The shooter managed with one bullet what dozens of threats had failed to do: silence Shehla Masood.

The 38-year-old businesswoman in the central Indian city of Bhopal had used India’s Right to Information Act to expose local corruption after she kept losing on government contracts. She died from a gunshot on Aug. 16 after getting into her car near her home. The murder is unsolved.

Masood is among at least 12 whistleblowers killed in India since January 2010, according to data compiled by Bloomberg, while at least 40 people were assaulted after seeking information under the law. Enacted by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh six years ago, the legislation has become the most powerful tool for fighting wrongdoing in politics and business, with 529,000 requests filed in the year through March. While some cases have prompted the resignation of public officials, users risk becoming victims of their success.

“It is a tragedy that these people have died, but it is also a sign of how powerful a tool the law is,” said Subhash Agrawal, a New Delhi cloth trader who successfully campaigned for Supreme Court judges and ministers’ assets to be made public under the information act.

“This is the most important piece of legislation passed in post-independence India. It is doing wonders for exposing corruption, and this will undoubtedly improve the performance of the economy,” he said in a phone interview.

Behind China

India’s economic expansion is being undermined by corruption, according to business leaders. Growth could approach China’s pace of more than 9 percent if graft were reduced, a KPMG LLP March survey of chief executive officers in India said. Gross domestic product has grown an average of 7.5 percent a year in the past decade, International Monetary Fund data show.

The law is making a difference. Answers to RTI requests helped lead to the ouster of the chief minister of Maharashtra state, of which Mumbai is the capital, and the arrest of three members of the 2010 Commonwealth Games’ organizing committee.

Increased scrutiny of government officials also holds promise for millions of poor in the world’s second-largest nation by population. The Alert Citizens Group in New Delhi helps slum-dwellers file applications that monitor improvements in services like water supplies and distribution systems for food, kerosene and cooking oil, and the meeting-attendance records and spending habits of local councilors.

For slum dwellers, filing a request under the law, known as RTI, was almost as effective as paying a bribe in getting a new ration card, according to a 2008 series of field experiments by Leonid Peisakhin and Paul Pinto, who were doctoral candidates at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut. Those who did nothing never received their card or waited three times as long, the researchers found in a 2009 paper.

More Protection

In a speech praising the impact of the RTI bill, Singh said Oct. 14 the government is taking steps to make the act more effective. To protect those exposing corruption he said the government will pass legislation that will provide security and protect the identity of whistleblowers.

“We expect this law to be enacted in the next few months and it would, among other things, help in prevention of violence against those who seek to expose wrongdoings,” Singh said.

Invoking the RTI act poses special risks for people living in remote areas, which often have only a handful of government officers, said Suhas Chakma, the New Delhi-based director of the Asian Centre for Human Rights. The official dealing with the request faces a potential conflict of interest in cases that reveal corruption or inefficiencies, since his own job could be jeopardized by releasing the information, he said.

‘More Aggressive’

“The increase in violence is a direct result of people getting more and more aggressive with their requests,” said Chakma, whose organization collects data on the assaults. “In the beginning, people didn’t realize how powerful this law was. Now, everybody knows, even the criminals and the corrupt.”

Eight of the 12 murdered activists lived in remote areas or towns. None lived in India’s 10 largest cities by population.

Accounts of the 40 assaults come from data compiled by Bloomberg from interviews with family members, police and regional-language newspapers, a database from the Asian human- rights center and cases examined by the Jaipur-based Consumer Unity and Trust Society.

One of the victims was Babbu Singh, a policeman who was shot after he filed an RTI request about public spending in his village of Katghar, in Uttar Pradesh state. Jaisukh Bambhania, who comes from the western state of Gujarat, was disfigured with acid; Jagdish Sharma, in the village of Chandrawal in Haryana, was injured and his daughter-in-law killed when the target of his RTI application drove his car into a crowd of protesters.

‘Used to Killing’

“When applications are filed people in government will pass the information on to criminals,” said N. Vikramsimha, a Bangalore-based trustee of the Right to Information Research Center, and author of “Gateway to Good Governance,” among other books on the measure. “The criminal bosses then come after you. They are used to killing people. It is not a problem for them.”

Niyamat Ansari may have paid the ultimate price for his request. A resident of the state of Jharkhand, he collected enough documents through his RTI requests for details on the winning bidders of public-works contracts under India’s National Rural Employment Guarantee Act to register official complaints with the police. Three people, including a local development official, were arrested.

Beaten to Death

On March 2, he was dragged from his house and beaten to death by a group of people, according to a police complaint filed by his family at the time. The attackers threw copies of his RTI requests at him and his family during the attack, said a cousin who declined to be identified out of fear for his life.

Local police don’t pursue complaints vigorously, according to Jaisukh Bambhania, who said in a phone interview that at least three people accosted him outside a government office in Una, Gujarat. He said the individuals stabbed him in the back, beat him with metal pipes and threw acid on him on Aug. 21, after he filed an RTI request asking which officials had approved construction of a local restaurant.

Dipankar Trivedi, the superintendent of police in Junagadh district, where Bambhania said the attack took place, said in a telephone interview that an investigation was under way, and that the attackers that Bambhania had named had filed their own complaint saying that they were not in Junagadh on those days.

Requests Denied

About 40 percent of federal RTI requests were rated unsuccessful in a 2009 study of 17,000 people across India by the RTI Assessment Analysis Group and the National Campaign for People’s Right to Information. By contrast, a report from Chief Information Commissioner Satyananda Mishra says fewer than 7 percent of requests were denied. Mishra didn’t reply to phone calls and e-mails.

Singh’s government has stood by the law even after an RTI request revealed divisions between ministries on a 2008 decision by then-Telecommunications Minister Andimuthu Raja to allot, instead of auction, mobile-phone airwaves. The Central Bureau of Investigation is probing charges of corruption in the allotment case, and Raja and 10 corporate executives have been arrested.

A letter resulting from an RTI request made by private citizen Vivek Garg showed the finance and telecommunications ministries had differed over the allocation, undermining claims by Singh in February that the cabinet had been united in backing an allotment.

Citizens’ Demands

“Even an individual citizen can demand what is being written in the files of the government, what notes or instructions the ministers are giving,” Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee said on Sept. 22, referring to the released letter, according to a transcript of a speech to U.S. and Indian business leaders in New Delhi.

Governments around the world are increasingly giving their citizens the legal right to information. More than 90 countries have enacted a version of the RTI, giving 5 billion people, or more than two-thirds of the world’s population, access to government records, according to the Accountability Initiative, a New Delhi-based research organization.

Chakma’s human rights group, along with others, is lobbying the Indian government to include RTI-related assaults in a special category of crimes to fast-track investigations and prosecutions. The information commission last month said it would publish anything sought by slain or attacked RTI requesters in the wake of Masood’s murder.

“Carrying out attacks will be counterproductive because the information that people want silenced will be published,” Information Commissioner Shailesh Gandhi said in an interview.

Lowest Bidder

Such disclosure will come too late for Masood, who began filing RTI requests seeking information about corruption after her first one showed she was the lowest bidder for contracts to manage state-government social events and yet never won. She asked about local environmental issues and government expenses and shared the responses with newspapers, which ran articles based on them.

“These experiences have made me tough, and work on social causes,” she told her friends in a posting on Facebook in May 2010. “I just pray that God gives me strength.”

By then she was living under a cloud of fear, according to her sister, Ayesha Masood.

In January 2010, Shehla Masood wrote a letter to the state director general of police and to other government officials, including Indian Minister for Home Affairs Palaniappan Chidambaram. She detailed threats to her life that she said were made by a local official, Pawan Shrivastava, and included a tape recording that she said was of Shrivastava threatening her.

‘Jurisdictional Issues’

The Home Ministry chose not to act because her letter was directed to the state director general of police, said ministry spokesman Onkar Kedia. “There were jurisdictional issues,” he said.

Masood later requested a copy of her letter through an RTI application to see what had become of it. The copy is marked as on file with the director general of police’s office in Bhopal. It includes a notation from an unnamed official saying that an investigation into her complaints should be undertaken.

Shrivastava has been questioned by the Central Bureau of Investigation in relation to the Masood case, said Hemant Priyadarshy, deputy inspector general for the CBI’s office in Madhya Pradesh state. He is running the murder investigation.

Shrivastava told Bloomberg News by telephone on Oct. 3 that he had no comment. He had previously agreed to meet a reporter in Bhopal and speak with him, then hung up the phone when the reporter called to make a specific appointment on Sept 17. The reporter was denied permission to enter the Bhopal police headquarters, where Shrivastava was assigned, on Sept. 20.

Parking-Lot Scuffle

That day, the reporter’s driver was slapped and knocked to the ground in a parking area by two constables. He had refused to answer their questions about the reporter’s identity and location of his hotel.

Masood never received protection despite several complaints, her sister and father said in their home in Bhopal.

“She was fighting alone, and while we were obviously worried, we never thought anything like this could happen,” said her father, Sultan Masood, 70.

Three weeks after Shehla Masood was shot in the trachea and bled to death in her car, the investigation was taken from local police and referred to the Central Bureau of Investigation, said the CBI’s Priyadarshy.

A forensic team found additional evidence, including files that Masood had on the day of her murder. Her cell phone records show the police used the phone after her death to order food from a nearby eatery, according to her family and Priyadarshy.

The crime “has attracted a lot of attention, both from the government and from the media, because Masood was an RTI activist and also because she was a woman,” said Priyadarshy. “I can assure you, my best men are working on the case.”

To contact the reporters on this story: Mehul Srivastava in New Delhi at msrivastava6@bloomberg.net; Andrew MacAskill in New Delhi at amacaskill@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Peter Hirschberg at phirschberg@bloomberg.net

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