CHENNAI: More than a month has passed since J Parasmal, a 58-year-old Right to Information (RTI) activist who used the tool to unearth building violations in Sowcarpet, was hacked to death by a gang wielding sickles.
While the incident reminded the public about the dangers faced by activists, nothing has been done to safeguard these information seekers who strive to expose the corruption rotting public offices. ‘Ask or rather probe into official data at your own peril’ seems to be the unspoken word.
Threatening calls from random numbers, anonymous messages, passing comments while on the streets and living with the constant fear of being implicated under false charges — the life of an RTI activist can be quite hard. Although there is no official data regarding the crimes against RTI activists in the country, a 2015 report compiled by the Common Wealth Human Rights Initiative, a Delhi-based organisation, recorded about 40 murders, besides another 230 cases of physical assault and harassment in a decade since RTI came into force in 2005. In Tamil Nadu, much before the daylight murder of Parasmal, S Bhuvaneswaran (38) was done to death in 2012. He had filed several RTI petitions to retrieve titles from land mafia, which allegedly encroached upon his property.
Sitting in his apartment in a bylane just off Usman Road in T Nagar, B Kannan told Express, “I got documents via RTI to prove that rules and regulations have not been adhered to by government agencies in issuing licences to establishments.”
Armed with the information, he took up the matter of building violations as well as lack of fire safety norms in shops in the locality. He even filed a case regarding the neglect of fire safety standards in the shops. All this was done at the expense of Kannan’s personal safety. “I have received several threatening calls asking me to drop the issue altogether or else face unpleasant consequences,” said Kannan.
Away from the metropolitan scene, Muthu Ismail, an RTI activist, had been probing irregularities committed in the last few years in Kayalpattinam municipality in Thoothukudi district. He suspected that the municipal authorities were involved in financial impropriety. Ismail told Express over phone that a false allegation was raised against him in 2014 as a fallout of his act. “But after a hearing by the State Information Commission in Chennai, it was dropped,” he said.
According to RTI activists, the foisting of cases by police or threats by anti-socials is creating a fear psychosis among them. “Increasingly, we are seeing RTI petitions being filed in the name of another person to obtain information from sensitive departments. That is because the petitioner’s name is leaked out, thereby creating problems for him or her,” said RTI activist Pughazvendan (45).
The harassment continues every day for these relentless crusaders. “Walking down the street, you listen to unpleasant comments uttered by local functionaries of political parties and government offices,” said V Santhanam (77), a resident of Chromepet,