Nilamani Joshi has filed 200 RTI applications in the last 10 years and has been threatened and attacked by those who wield political power in Balangir, Odisha. Yet, he maintains that being an RTI activist is the only job he’s proud of.
Nilamani Joshi’s home in Balangir, Odisha, is stacked with piles of folders that his work has brought to him in the last 10 years. Joshi is an RTI activist. The RTI, shorthand for India’s landmark Right to Information Act of 2005, gives citizens the right to seek information from public authorities and entrusts public authorities to computerise and maintain records that are publicly available.
The Act has exposed several cases of corruption including the Commonwealth Games scam and the 2G scam, but it has also put its advocates at great risk. Since its implementation, 77 activists have been killed and six have committed suicide. Another 340 persons actively using the RTI to expose scams have been assaulted, harassed or threatened. Joshi is one of them.
“I was attacked with a pistol in December 2014, and again in December 2016. When the rice mills reopened after I had filed an RTI in a mill-related scam, the mill owners hired a hitman to kill me. They are still angry about my work, I don’t know what will happen to me,” he says, worried about his sons, as a single parent.
An RTI camp was held in Balangir in 2008, and Joshi has been working as a full-time activist since. In all, he has filed 200 applications under the Act, so far. The biggest case he worked on was a scam in the appointment of Revenue Inspectors and amins in Odisha; the RTIs filed found that the results of the appointment tests had been rigged. The recruitment of 166 Revenue Inspectors and amins was cancelled by the state government and the decision upheld by the Supreme Court.
“The District Collector of Balangir, Devaraj Mishra, was consequently arrested, but he was let out after a month,” says Joshi.
The Collector is considered the most powerful official in a district, and taking on him had repercussions for Joshi. “The attack in December 2014 was an outcome of my involvement in the case,” he says.
Most of his other applications have been to the District Civil Supply Department as corruption in the Department affects the livelihoods of agrarian communities in the region. Presently, he is working to expose the ongoing corruption at the Chief District Medical Office in Balangir.
The RTI has its roots in a workers’ movement led by the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS), and the movement evolved out of a struggle for transparency in minimum wages.
Joshi says that while it is a powerful tool to combat corruption, it is being diluted by the government, a concern raised by the flag bearers of the RTI movement as well.
The RTI Amendment Bill, 2018, which is now going to be introduced in the winter session of the Parliament, proposes that the Centre should have the power to decide the salaries and tenures of central and state information commissioners. The salaries and tenures are presently decided by the RTI Act itself, and if the proposed amendment is adopted, the Bill would give undue power to the government over information commissioners.
The other major roadblock in the implementation of the RTI in letter and spirit is the refusal of political parties to comply with the Central Information Commission’s 2013 order which brings them under the purview of the Act. The non-compliance is being challenged by activists in the Supreme Court.
Going forward, RTI activists have called for stronger allied policies, especially for better implementation of the Whistleblowers’ Protection Act of 2014 and the Lokpal and Lokayuktas Act of 2013. Both activists and the Central Information Commission also recognise the need for a stronger grievance redressal system since many RTIs demand information related to the non-delivery of entitlements and schemes. The National Campaign for Peoples’ Right to Information is currently holding countrywide campaigns to this end.
Video by Community Correspondent Satyanarayan Banchhor
Article by Alankrita Anand, a member of the VV Editorial Team
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In this video from Puri, Odisha, the RTI activist is badly assaulted and he alleges that the Police is protecting the culprits because of the political ideology and patronage of the ruling party of Odisha.