India's perilous road to transparency
- 18 March 2011
- From the section South Asia
Asking questions can cost your life in India - even if the right to solicit information is protected by law.
Amar Nath Deo Pandey is luckier - in less than a week, he appears to have escaped two attempts on his life in a nondescript town in India's most populous state, Uttar Pradesh.
More than five years after the introduction of a landmark law that allows Indians to access information held by the government, the questioners themselves are under attack.
In the last three years alone, nearly a dozen people who dared to ask uncomfortable questions under the country's Right to Information law have been killed, and scores of such information seekers have been attacked across the country.
The backlash is not surprising considering that the law is forcing a seismic change in India's post-colonial officialdom, which swears by a stifling "official secrets act" while denying information to citizens.
Mr Pandey, an energetic 55-year-old homeopath and social worker, discovered the perils of asking awkward questions the hard way.
Last year a group of people in his native town of Robertsgunj in Sonbhadra district filed freedom of information applications seeking answers about suspected corruption in India's massive jobs-for-work programme.
Some of the answers he and his co-workers received showed large-scale government corruption.
Lists of eligible workers for the programme had been forged, inflated payments had been made - bricks had been bought at 12 times the market price - and village council finances had not been audited for four years in a row.
Old roads had been shown in records as newly constructed ones, public money had been spent to make roads which did not exist and more than 150 promised homes for the poor had failed to materialise.
Still, money was being pumped into the programme which guarantees 100 days of work a year for every household.
Even the village council officer, the information revealed, had forged his high school and college transcripts to make himself eligible for the job.
The revelations shook up the government and led to the suspension of the village council officer nearly three months ago.
A government investigation also found that district officials had stolen money from the jobs-for-work programme, and amassed considerable fortunes well beyond their means.
That was when, Mr Pandey says, "vile threats" on his telephone began - and then came the suspected attempts on his life.
On 26 January, the anniversary of India's republic, he was returning from the main market in Robertsgunj when a "man, possibly in his thirties" came from behind, pressed a gun sideways to his head, fired a single shot and ran away.
Mr Pandey says he felt a scorching sensation on his scalp for a moment, before he began dragging himself to his home screaming for help.
"I have been shot! I have been shot! Help!"
At home his family bandaged his bleeding head, and took him to the derelict local clinic which administered some first aid before sending him off to a better-equipped hospital in the holy town of Varanasi, some 70km (45 miles) away.
There, doctors opened his skull and cleaned the wound. They sent him back home two days later with emergency stocks of antibiotics and injections.
The hospital report said Mr Pandey had suffered from a "gunshot injury in the left side of the head [and felt] pain in the scalp", pointing to the fact that the bullet had grazed his skull.
He had barely escaped becoming India's 12th "right to information martyr", as senior police officer Amitabh Thakur, who is writing a book on people who have been murdered for seeking information, describes them.
"I was nearly given a medal of death on a day when India gives medals to the brave. Only because I stood up against corruption," says Mr Pandey, breaking down.
Six days before the failed gun attack - no arrests have been made yet - Mr Pandey had his first near-assignation with death.
He was driving his pale blue scooter in the town, when a rashly-driven SUV rammed into him from behind.
Mr Pandey says he was sent flying and landed on his haunches on the pavement, escaping any serious injuries. The vehicle sped away without stopping.
"I thought it was an accident. My lawyers tell me it was a clear attempt to murder. They say the vehicle belonged to the suspended village council officer," says Mr Pandey.
Nearly a month after returning home, Mr Pandey has not stepped out yet.
An armed police guard has been deployed to protect him and his family - the policeman usually sits outside on a rope-bed keeping an eye on visitors.
"I will continue to ask questions. But I don't want to pay for it with my life," says a visibly shaken Mr Pandey.
Information commissioners say they are concerned over the rising attacks on people who are seeking government information.
"We are very concerned. This is a worrisome trend. State governments should protect people who ask sensitive questions," says central information commissioner Satyananda Mishra.
He believes that governments should be more forthcoming with putting more information in the public domain anyway, so people don't have to file an application to get it.
"More transparency will mean that the information seekers will be less harassed and become targets."
This is the first of two features by Soutik Biswas on the dangers facing people using the Right to Information law in India.