Citizens promoting the use of the Right to Information (RTI) in Delhi are attacked murderously. The government projects such incidences not as crimes but as minor issues to be sorted out between the workers and the people concerned.
RTI in Delhi: blood-stained
In the sixth incidence of violence against Parivartan workers in the last year and a half, Santosh, a young worker was attacked murderously on 30 December 2004. India Together readers will be aware that the Delhi-based NGO Parivartan is spearheading a continuous campaign in helping poor citizens in slums and resettlement colonies get their due ration supplies using the state's Right to Information Act. An unidentified person slit the the upper part of Santosh's throat when she was on her way to work. Santosh is 20.
According to Arvind Kejriwal, who leads Parivartan, ever since an FIR was filed, ration shop owners have been trying to scuttle enquiries by visiting the police. Their reported interest in the case has only aroused strong suspicion over their involvement in the attack, not otherwise. Also, some cooperative shopkeepers have told Parivartan in confidence that the ration dealers association of Nandnagari were behind the attack.
Earlier, on 13 December, two young men assaulted Santosh in the office compound of Assistant Commissioner of Food (North East) while she was guiding poor and illiterate people on how to get their ration cards made and get names added/deleted in them. They attacked her face with a blade. The men were in their late 20s.
Parivartan's verification of the ration shops' daily sales registers in different parts of Delhi has exposed massive corruption. Parivartan checked with 82 poor families in Welcome Colony in East Delhi, finding out that 93% of the wheat and 97% of the rice shown as having been distributed to them was never received. While 46 families in R K Puram revealed that almost no rations reached them, residents of Ravidas Camp in Patparganj had not received any grains for the last several years and were repeatedly told by the ration shop owners that the government had stopped sending rations.
Malfunctioning government system
Ration shop owners in collusion with Food Department officials have been forging the signatures of card holders to siphon off rations. Rations so appropriated are then sold in the open market or sent to private mills. Siphoning is a cognizable offence under the Essential Commodities Act, punishable with a minimum of three months and a maximum of seven years of imprisonment.
The Chief Secretary of Delhi, says the rate of conviction is quite low in Delhi, and that witnesses turn hostile in most cases. So the government will not prosecute shop owners for theft of supplies.
Chief Secretary, Shailaja Chandra
Tel: +91-11-23392100, 23392101
However, the government is openly flouting these SC orders; it does not seem to be willing to take stern action against either the ration shop owners or the officials being paid to supervise them. When Parivartan representatives met the Chief Minister of Delhi in the first week of November, she assured them that Delhi Government would register FIRs on every complaint of misappropriation of rations. However, on 6 December 2004 the Chief Secretary of Delhi wrote to commissioners working under the Supreme Court. He stated that the government would not launch prosecutions over the ration theft cases because the rate of conviction is quite low in Delhi, adding that witnesses turn hostile in most cases.
The conviction rate in most of the criminal cases filed in various courts in our country is quite low. Does that mean that the police should stop registering and investigating cases of crime, asks Kejriwal of Parivartan.
In the meantime, the Food Department has been projecting the violence as an issue between Parivartan and shop owners. A shop owner against whom a theft complaint is made is let off after paying a minor fine. In rare cases, a few licenses have been cancelled. Licences of two shop-owners in Welcome colony, two each in Kalyanpuri and Sundernagari and three in R K Puram have been suspended. However, the government has not proceeded to initiate action against them under the Essential Commodities Act.
Parivartan has not been discouraged by the attacks, though. The NGO reports that after the attempt on Santosh, it interacted with Chief Minister, Chief Secretary and the Food Commissioner and submitted evidence against 10 shop owners in different parts of Delhi. In response, the Chief Secretary has reportedly promised to lodge FIRs. The Secretary has also stated that his government will act against officials who are in direct nexus with ration shop keepers.
Parivartan is not swayed by these assurances; the government had made similar statements in the first week of November, last year. "We treat this as the beginning of a process of action against guilty officials and vested interests", says Kejriwal. He says that real change will come when a full fledged public grievance system is put in place where the government acts on complaints from citizen, in tandem with exposure of corruption and official dereliction of duty through the RTI law.
National advocates are supportive
The National Campaign for Peoples Right to Information (NCPRI) organized a press conference in Delhi on 6 January 2005 to flag the media on violence against citizens using the RTI law and the shocking inaction on part of the government. NCPRI is a national level people's group comprising individuals and members of other non-governmental organizations*. It advocates and organizes for transparent functioning of institutions and agencies in India.
Addressing the press were Aruna Roy (NCPRI), V.P. Singh (former Prime Minister of India), Arvind Kejriwal (Parivartan & member of NCPRI), Jean Drèze (Right to Food Campaign), Prashant Bhushan (lawyer, Supreme Court & member of NCPRI), Prabhash Joshi (journalist & member of NCPRI) and Ajit Bhattacharjea (journalist & member of NCPRI), among others.
The gathering came up with the following demands for the Delhi government:
Silent ration scams nationwide
Noted economist and member of the National Advisory Council Jean Drèze says that the proportion of grain that appears to be siphoned off from the system is as high as 21% in Orissa, 47% in Madhya Pradesh, 70% in Uttar Pradesh and 88% in Bihar. Taking together the 19 major states for which calculations can be made, about 50 per cent of the grain is stolen.
In 2001-2 (the reference year for these calculations), total off-take from the PDS was around 15 million tonnes. If half of it was sold on the black market, this theft was worth about Rs 5,000 crores more than five times as much as the well-known fodder scam in Bihar, says Dreze. Dreze is author of several books on development economics, including India: Development and Participation, which he co-authored with Amartya Sen, the noted economist and Nobel laureate.
While some scams easily hit headlines, many silent scams often permeating the entire system are brushed off under the carpet. The Delhi government urgently needs to address the citizens groups' demands developed if it is to uphold norms of justice and most of all protect the convictions of committed citizens like Santosh.
Status of proposed amendments in Central RTI Law
Our readers will recall that sweeping amendments were to be introduced to the languishing national Freedom of Information Act, 2002 in the winter session of the Parliament. The National Advisory Council (NAC), chaired by Congress leader Sonia Gandhi, had drafted and recommended a series of amendments that promised far greater transparency in government functioning.
The Bill is now with Parliament's Standing Committee on Personnel, Public Grievances, Law and Justice for examination and report.
There has also been some confusion regarding the constitutional status of the Central RTI Act in the light of several states having their own RTI laws. Senior Advocate Shanti Bhushan recently sorted this out. He points out that the constitution provides that when there is a State as well as a Central Regulation on a subject, the Central legislation overrides the State legislation to the extent that there is conflict between them. Thus, it would be perfectly legal for the Central RTI Law to be applicable to all public authorities in India whether they are under the central, state or local authority. Moreover, the right provided by the Central law would be in addition to and not in derogation of the right provided by State laws, according to Bhushan.