In­dia’s im­per­iled cor­rup­tion fight­ers

At least 60 right-to-in­for­ma­tion ac­tivists have been killed since a 2005 pub­lic-ac­cess law took ef­fect

The Washington Post - - THE WORLD - BY VIDHI DOSHI IN MUM­BAI

In the din of Kalina, a low­in­come neigh­bor­hood in Mum­bai with wan­der­ing samosa sales­men and street-cricket cham­pi­onships, no­body heard the gun­shot ring out in the night.

Bhu­pen­dra Vira slumped in his chair. The 62-year-old had known that his anti-cor­rup­tion work was dan­ger­ous. That is why he kept ev­i­dence neatly stacked in fold­ers un­der his bed. That is why he had asked po­lice for pro­tec­tion.

“There was blood ev­ery­where,” said Ran­jan Vira, his wife. “I used my scarf to cover his wound. My night­gown was soaked with his blood.”

Ac­cord­ing to data col­lected by the Com­mon­wealth Hu­man Rights Ini­tia­tive, Vira’s killing was one of 60 sim­i­lar cases in In­dia since 2005, when the Right to In­for­ma­tion Act was in­tro­duced. The leg­is­la­tion is sim­i­lar to the United States’ Free­dom of In­for­ma­tion Act and al­lows cit­i­zens to re­quest the re­lease of in­for­ma­tion from govern­ment of­fi­cials. But in In­dia, those who in­voke the law risk pro­vok­ing vi­o­lent retri­bu­tion.

Vira had been in­ves­ti­gat­ing a lo­cal prop­erty scam; he said the records he un­cov­ered im­pli­cated his land­lord, Ab­bas Raz­zak Khan, and lo­cal au­thor­i­ties. He had sent mul­ti­ple re­quests to lo­cal mu­nic­i­pal bod­ies and filed com­plaints on the ba­sis of the in­for­ma­tion he col­lected — com­plaints that led to the raz­ing of a num­ber of il­le­gal build­ings in the area.

In­di­ans make ap­prox­i­mately 4 mil­lion to 6 mil­lion pub­licin­for­ma­tion re­quests every year, said An­jali Bhard­waj of the Na­tional Cam­paign for Peo­ple’s Right to In­for­ma­tion. Right-to-in­for­ma­tion ac­tivists such as Vira have taught them­selves to de­ci­pher com­plex le­gal doc­u­ments and nav­i­gate In­dia’s labyrinthine bu­reau­cracy. They comb through govern­ment doc­u­ments search­ing for hints of fal­si­fi­ca­tion or mal­prac­tice.

But there are risks. At least 300 peo­ple have been ha­rassed or phys­i­cally hurt be­cause of their work. Ac­tivists say the fig­ure is likely to be a con­ser­va­tive es­ti­mate, com­piled from news sto­ries, as au­thor­i­ties do not sep­a­rately record deaths and at­tacks linked to peo­ple’s ex­er­cis­ing the right to seek in­for­ma­tion.

Al­though In­dia is one of 70 coun­tries with free­dom-ofin­for­ma­tion laws, the killings are “uniquely a South Asian phe­nom­e­non,” said Venkatesh Nayak, co­or­di­na­tor of the Ac­cess to In­for­ma­tion Pro­gram at the Com­mon­wealth Hu­man Rights Ini­tia­tive. “It started in In­dia in 2007-2008, and now we are hear­ing of cases of as­sault and in­tim­i­da­tion from Bangladesh as well.”

Ac­cord­ing to a re­cent re­port by Trans­parency In­ter­na­tional, In­dia is the most cor­rupt coun­try in Asia, with 69 per­cent of re­spon­dents in a sur­vey say­ing they had ob­tained pub­lic ser­vices by pay­ing bribes.

“It’s very crit­i­cal to un­der­stand the na­ture of cor­rup­tion in our coun­try,” Bhard­waj said. “It’s un­like Western coun­tries, where you have cor­rup­tion at the high­est level but things work at the low­est level. In In­dia, you have cor­rup­tion at every sin­gle level.”

Like Vira, many have lost their lives. Some have been at­tacked with knives and ma­chetes. Some have been so badly beaten that they have been par­a­lyzed or hos­pi­tal­ized with se­ri­ous in­juries. Oth­ers have van­ished.

Yet the re­quests for in­for­ma­tion keep com­ing. Many In­di­ans start us­ing the act to seek re­dress of per­sonal griev­ances against the govern­ment. In one area in south­ern Delhi, a group started mak­ing re­quests to find out where un­de­liv­ered food ra­tions were go­ing. In an­other re­gion, stricken by drought, res­i­dents dis­cov­ered that their lo­cal govern­ment rep­re­sen­ta­tive was spend­ing money build­ing foun­tains in­stead of en­sur­ing a clean sup­ply of drink­ing wa­ter for the pub­lic.

“What peo­ple are able to con­nect with is the link be­tween that in­for­ma­tion and get­ting your ra­tions,” Bhard­waj said. “So get­ting in­for­ma­tion be­came a mat­ter of be­ing able to use your other rights.”

Vira’s cru­sade against cor­rup­tion started be­cause his land­lord had forcibly taken over his steel­works fac­tory, a build­ing he had in­her­ited from his fa­ther and used for stor­age for his stationery shop. Ac­cord­ing to a com­plaint that Vira filed with lo­cal po­lice in 2010, his land­lord and the land­lord’s son broke the pad­lock on the fac­tory door and seized items worth about $4,700.

“I talked to Mr. Ab­bas Raz­zak Khan re­gard­ing same, but he threat­ened to break hands and legs of my­self and my sons. And then Ab­bas Raz­zak Khan left, putting his own lock on the shop,” Vira’s state­ment reads.

Vira sus­pected that Khan had paid lo­cal au­thor­i­ties to al­low him to take over prop­er­ties in the area. To prove it, he started fil­ing rightto-in­for­ma­tion re­quests. The re­quests rat­tled of­fi­cials, said Sud­hir Gala, Vira’s son-in-law. In an­other com­plaint, filed in 2016, Vira de­scribes be­ing threat­ened by a mu­nic­i­pal of­fi­cer.

An of­fi­cer in­ves­ti­gat­ing the case said po­lice think Vira was killed be­cause of the com­plaints he made to au­thor­i­ties in his right-to-in­for­ma­tion re­quests. The of­fi­cer de­clined to give his name be­cause the Vira homi­cide case is pend­ing and be­cause he is not au­tho­rized to speak to the news me­dia.

A trial against Vira’s sus­pected killers is un­der­way. One of them is Khan, who has been re­leased on bail. His son Am­jad is still in jail; po­lice found a gun and bul­lets in his home. Both pleaded not guilty in the case.

It could be years be­fore the slow-mov­ing ju­di­cial sys­tem de­liv­ers a ver­dict. In the mean­time, Ran­jan, Vira’s wife, is start­ing to con­front the re­al­ity of liv­ing her later years with­out the man she mar­ried 40 years ago, when she was 18.

Now, she has two bat­tles to fight: re­claim­ing her hus­band’s fac­tory and seek­ing jus­tice in his killing. “We know we’re right, so we’re will­ing to risk ev­ery­thing,” she said. But min­utes later, her re­solve crum­bled. “Some­times I feel I’m ready to go, too,” she said.

The money she earns barely cov­ers her daily costs. “Why go through all this, just to put two ro­tis in your stom­ach at the end of the day? For the past week, I haven’t been work­ing,” she added. “I’ve be­come alone. I feel like run­ning away.”

PHO­TOS BY VIDHI DOSHI/THE WASH­ING­TON POST

Ran­jan Vira, Bhu­pen­dra Vira’s wife, sits in the spot where her hus­band was sit­ting when he was fa­tally shot. The miss­ing wall tiles, at right, were re­moved by po­lice as ev­i­dence be­cause the bul­let ric­o­cheted off them. A land­lord and his son have been charged in the case.

A photo of Bhu­pen­dra Vira now hangs above the cot on which he used to sleep. The beaded gar­land sig­ni­fies that Vira is dead. Vira had been in­ves­ti­gat­ing a lo­cal prop­erty scam; he said the records he un­cov­ered im­pli­cated his land­lord and lo­cal au­thor­i­ties.

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