High Price for India’s Information Law


By LYDIA POLGREEN

KODINAR, India – Amit Jethwa had just left his lawyer’s office after discussing a lawsuit he had filed to stop an illicit limestone quarry with ties to powerful local politicians. That is when the assassins struck, speeding out of the darkness on a roaring motorbike, pistols blazing. He died on the spot, blood pouring from his mouth and nose. He was 38.

Mr. Jethwa was one of millions of Indians who had embraced the country’s five-year-old Right to Information Act, which allows citizens to demand almost any government information. People use the law to stop petty corruption and to solve their most basic problems, like getting access to subsidized food for the poor or a government pension without having to pay a bribe, or determining whether government doctors and teachers are actually showing up for work.

But activists like Mr. Jethwa who have tried to push such disclosures further – making pointed inquiries at the dangerous intersection of high-stakes business and power politics – have paid a heavy price. Perhaps a dozen have been killed since 2005, when the law was enacted, and countless others have been beaten and harassed.

In many of these cases, the information requested involved allegations of corruption and collusion between politicians and big-money business.

“Now that power people are realizing the power of the right to information, there is a backlash,” said Amitabh Thakur, an activist and police official who is writing a book about people killed for demanding information under the law. “It has become dangerous.”

India may be the world’s largest democracy, but it remains dogged by the twin legacies of feudalism and colonialism, which have often meant that citizens are treated like subjects. Officials who are meant to serve them often act more like feudal lords than representatives of the people.

The law was intended to be a much-needed leveler between the governors and the governed. In many ways it has worked, giving citizens the power to demand a measure of accountability from bureaucrats and politicians.

When the law was passed, Mr. Jethwa, a longtime activist who nursed a lifelong grudge against those who abused official power, immediately seized upon it as a powerful new tool.

His objective was to stop illegal quarries near the Gir National Park, 550 square miles of scrubland and deciduous forest near his hometown, along the southern coast of Gujarat, India’s most prosperous state. The preserve is the only remaining habitat of the rare Asiatic lion. The animal is featured on the national emblem of India, and is considered by Hindus to be a sacred incarnation of Lord Vishnu.

But the forest sits in a mineral-rich area of coastal Gujarat dotted with cement factories that churn out building materials to fuel India’s near double-digit economic growth. The limestone that lies just beneath the soil in and around the Gir Forest is an ideal component of cement. By law, the forest and a three-mile boundary around it are off limits to all mining activity. But quarries the size of several football fields have been cut deep into the earth in the protected zone.

This mining has had serious consequences not only for the forest preserve, but also for water used for drinking and farming. The thirsty limestone is a natural barrier between seawater and fresh groundwater. A recent state government report concluded that limestone mining had allowed seawater to flow into the aquifer, causing an “irreversible loss.”

Balu Bhai Socha, an environmental advocate who worked with Mr. Jethwa, said the pace of mining rapidly increased as the local economy boomed.

“The speed with which the illegal mining was going on, we realized, within 10 years they will clean out the whole forest,” Mr. Socha said.

Mr. Jethwa repeatedly filed information requests to unearth the names of those operating the quarries and to see what action had been taken against them. He discovered there were 55 illegal quarries in and around the preserve. One name stood out among the records of land leases, electricity bills and inspection reports: Dinubhai Solanki, a powerful member of Parliament from the Bharatiya Janata Party, which governs Gujarat.

Mr. Solanki, who had risen from the State Legislature to Parliament, was a local kingmaker and an imperious presence. He had the backing of the local police and bureaucrats, activists here said. Mr. Jethwa and many others suspected that he was the mastermind and principal beneficiary of the illegal mining operation.

In February 2008, Mr. Jethwa was attacked by a gang of men on motorbikes. He was beaten so badly that he had to be hospitalized. He immediately suspected Mr. Solanki.

“If someone attacks me, or kills me in an accident, if my body is injured – for these acts the Kodinar MLA Dinu Solanki will be responsible,” he wrote in a letter to Gujarat’s chief minister, Narendra Modi, after the attack.

“I cautioned him several times about the danger,” the elder Mr. Jethwa said. “But he used to say: ‘Forget that you have three sons and say you have two sons. Let me do my work.’ He would say, ‘My religion is rule of law.’ “


Balu Bhai Socha, an environmental advocate, said that he now thought twice before challenging powerful interests and that he wondered if the risks were worth it.

Mr. Jethwa’s information requests found sheaves of correspondence between forestry officials and local bureaucrats showing that despite repeated efforts to shut down the quarries, the practice continued.

By last June, he felt that he had amassed enough evidence to file a lawsuit to stop the mining. He filed the papers on June 28. On July 20, late at night, he was gunned down, leaving behind a wife and two children.

Because of his activism and the place where he died, practically on the doorstep of the state high court, political pressure forced an unusually swift investigation. Detectives used cellphone records to link Shiva Solanki, the nephew of Dinubhai Solanki, to the killing, and he has been charged with conspiracy and murder. He is accused of hiring a contract killer to murder Mr. Jethwa.

But few people believe that Shiva Solanki, who works for his uncle, could have carried out and paid for a contract killing on his own.

Anand Yagnik, a prominent human rights lawyer in Gujarat, said that the police had made no effort to investigate Mr. Solanki.

“The message that has gone out is that if you resort to your right to information to try to harass a political person, even after your murder, that man will go scot-free,” Mr. Yagnik said, seated below a portrait of Gandhi in his basement law office in Ahmedabad.

The police did not respond to repeated requests for comment on the investigation into Mr. Jethwa’s death. Mr. Solanki told reporters at his office here that because the case was under investigation he would not answer questions.

“You are welcome to sit here, have a cup of tea,” he said. “I will not say a word.”

Mr. Jethwa’s death has sent a chill through the community of activists here. Mr. Socha, the environmental activist, said that he now thought twice before challenging powerful interests and that he wondered if the risks were worth it.

“Our hearts are broken after his death,” Mr. Socha said. “You cannot fix the system. Everybody is getting money. If I give my life, what is the point?”

Advertisements

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: