Daily Editorial Analysis for 30th July 2022

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We need to protect whistle blowers

GS Paper 2: Important Aspects of Governance, Transparency and Accountability
Important For:
Mains exam: Role of Whistle blowers in the society and their protection
“Words, words, words” was Hamlet’s reply to Polonius’ question, “What do you read, my lord?” That is what our Right to Information (RTI) Act, 2005, is being reduced to.

The Right to Information Act

• The Centre for Law and Democracy classifies it among the top five laws in the world.
• The RTI empowers us to participate in the policymaking process, by providing access to information relating to the functioning of all public authorities.
• Ordinary citizens have used the law to make public authorities accountable and transparent in their functioning.
• In fact, the law has been used extensively by a cross section of citizens including activists, lawyers, bureaucrats, researchers, journalists and most importantly, ordinary folk.
• They all have been asking simple questions and pursuing answers on the use of public funds, and unearthing corruption of all kinds from the Panchayat level right up to Parliament.
• The widespread understanding and use of the RTI is a shining example of a participatory democracy in spite of our current realities.
The dangerous underside of the RTI
• Since the implementation of the Act, some 100 RTI activists across the country have been killed and several are harassed on a daily basis.
• This is a reality of one of the strongest laws for democratic accountability that we must systematically address through strong legal and institutional safeguards.

Where the crimes against activists are maximum?

• Bihar is turning out to be one of the most dangerous States for RTI activists.
• The State ranks first in the number of deaths of RTI users.
Govt’s responsibility to save activists
• These brutal murders have not only raised an urgent question of the protection of people engaging with the system to seek accountability, but also of the state’s responsibility to provide legal assistance, time-bound grievance redressal, compensation, and dignified access to justice to the families of those killed.
• The killing of RTI users and the intimidation of their family as they struggle for justice, in Bihar and other parts of the country, are reflective of the lack of action by the government and collusion of the police with powerful vested interests.

What is needed to be done?

• Recognises RTI users under attack as human right defenders: We need to advocate for and move towards creating a socio-legal system that recognises RTI users under attack as human right defenders and build a framework that facilitates and protects them in their attempt to pursue issues of public interest.
• Complete investigations in time: State governments must direct law-enforcement agencies to expeditiously and in a time-bound manner complete investigations in all cases where RTI users are harassed. This must include making proactive efforts to provide adequate

compensation to the victim’s family.

• institutionalise proactive disclosure of actionable information: Available evidence clearly shows that the information requested by the murdered RTI users was information that should have been mandatorily disclosed in the public domain under Section 4 of the RTI Act. Therefore, the State governments must take immediate efforts to institutionalise proactive disclosure of actionable information.
• Immediately direct the relevant public authorities: In all cases of threats, attacks or killings of RTI users, the State Information Commission must immediately direct the relevant public authorities to disclose and publicise all the questions raised and the answers given to the user.

Rajasthan has taken the lead in active disclosure. Its Jan Soochna portal subsequently followed by Karnataka’s Mahiti Kanaja are outstanding examples of practical ways of mandatory disclosure.

• Effective legislation: There is an urgent need to enact an effective legislation to protect whistle blowers.
o State governments, such as those of Bihar and Maharashtra, which have recorded the highest number of murders of RTI activists, must introduce their own mechanisms for protecting whistle blowers by enacting at least a State-level whistle blower protection law.
What has the Supreme Court observed?
• In 2016, a Supreme Court bench came down heavily on the Union government for its reluctance in notify the Whistle Blowers Protection Act of 2014, but unfortunately to no avail.
• The Supreme Court observed that there was an “absolute vacuum” which could not be allowed to go on.
• The Central government was called upon to decide on a specific time frame to establish an administrative set-up to protect whistle blowers. Eight years have gone by and the proposed Act has not been notified.
Ignoring the plight of RTI users facing death for keeping our democracy alive is a threat to democracy itself. After all, the whistle blowers were performing a basic civic duty of public vigilance that the government should encourage and initiate timely action on.

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