Fate of ‘transparency’ on 15th anniversary of RTI
Prof Madabhushi Sridhar Acharyulu,
Former Central Information Commissioner
On the 15th anniversary of Right to Information Act, 2005, the transparency suffered a severe set-back with CBI removing the FIR on gangrape in Hathras. A jolt to transparency and blow to credibility of independence or objectivity of investigation. The nation doubted the objective investigation by UP Police, as one of its top officers declared that there was no rape at all and felt relieved when UP Government handed over the investigation to CBI. But to great surprise and shock of the people who demand rule of law and justice to victim of gang rape, the CBI has, just hours after posting an FIR and a press statement on taking over the investigation into the Hathras gang rape and murder of a Dalit woman, has removed the same from its website.
First step of CBI- hiding FIR
It was reported that the Department of Personnel and Training (DoPT) issued a notification authorising the CBI to investigate the case, and registered an FIR early on Sunday under Section 307 (Attempt to murder), 376(D) (Gang rape), and 302 (Murder) of IPC and Section 3(2) (v) of the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989. This case was originally registered as an attempt to murder a Dalit at the Chandpa police station in Hathras district on September 14. Most shockingly, neither the complaint nor the first FIR had made any mention of rape or gang rape. Protests all over the nation were growing and demand for in-depth investigation was gaining strength, after the 19-year-old victim succumbed to injuries in a Delhi hospital on September 29, triggering national outrage and agitations by political parties, and activists.
The Department of Forensic Medicine of the Aligarh Muslim University’s Jawaharlal Nehru Medical College & Hospital in its report said there were no signs suggestive of vaginal/anal intercourse. Police officer interpreted it to the advantage of criminals and preferred to ignore other part of the report which said there was evidence of assault with injuries on the body. Then the entire administration had hurriedly cremated the victim’s body on the night of September 29 allegedly without the consent of the aggrieved family. The dead body of a victim of gang rape, could serve as one of the most convincing evidences to establish guilt.
Information-deficit means death to labour
It is just a tip of the iceberg to explain the regime of secrecy that the executive at Centre and states are perpetuating. While in above case, death and cremation is removal of information and proof, when right information is not given at right time, it could cause death. Lack of knowledge about existence of migrant labour led the Union governemnt to lockdown without making any arrangements of food or travel for workless workers moving back to homes on foot. Lack of plans and information about food and travel resulted in several deaths either in accident or of exhaustion.
Information crisis the nation confronted is about the crores of migrant labour moving from one place to another after sudden imposition of nation-wide lockdown from midnight, as announced by the Prime Minister over Television on March 24, at 8pm. Government gave people just four hours to prepare themselves. It also triggered a humanitarian crisis of an unprecedented scale. For months followed, thousands of migrant workers, who were rendered jobless overnight due to the lockdown and had no means to survive in cities in absence of wages, started walking towards their villages, on heals or wheels, whatever they could find. The lockdown implemented in India was considered the strictest in the world. The Government failed to gauze the issue of people working at different places and failed to provide any relief to them, because they had no information about it.
The corona caused lockdown turned out to be information lockdown with 28 State Information Commissions were on Covid19 vacation shutting down the doors. The Central Information Commission took at least a few hearings on WhatsApp platform connecting both the parties from the residence of the Commissioner with skeleton office support. The CHRI could ascertain the fact of closure of SICs in 28 states while CIC could function from April 20.
For a few months, citizens had no benefit of first or second appeals, without which they cannot even approach the High Courts under writ jurisdiction. Similarly, the legal remedy for police excesses and violations of human rights were not within the reach as the subordinate judiciary has been totally ceased from functioning while High Courts and Supreme court had a few hearings through video conference of ‘emergency’ matters. Besides information, the justice also was mostly inaccessible.
Failure of CLC and CIC
Venkatesh Nayak, of CHRI has tried to secure the information about the migrant workers and their conditions during Covid19 from Central Labour Commissioner’s (CLC) office. Disappointed with CLC’s he filed a complaint with the Central Information Commissioner, which rightly took up out of turn hearing. But the CIC chose to give an advisory to the Chief Labour Commissioner, requiring him to upload information about stranded workers on an official website within a week’s time. It was not a direction. The CLC has a statutory duty under section 4 of RTI Act to voluntarily disclose the data about migrant labour and its efforts to find solution to their crisis of survival and transport. The tragedy is this section is rarely implemented and the law, nodal agencies and the Information Commission have no clue on breach of Section 4.
The CLC had, on April 8, issued a circular to his regional heads to collect data about every stranded migrant worker in every district and state. Templates were issued for data capture during the enumeration process. Both blue- and white-collared workers were to be enumerated in this manner. The regional heads were given three days to collect this data and send it to the CLC. This shows inefficiency and defective governance in CLC.
According to the Chief Labour Commissioner’s office, the three states that recorded highest number of migrant workers who are stranded are Chhattisgarh (1085828), Kerala (286846) and Telangana (184006). The total number of stranded migrant workers is 26,17,218 and most of them (46%) are in localities where they are usually ‘clustered’. 43% are stranded within their workplaces and only a tiny minuscule 10% are staying in actual relief camps or shelter homes.
There are several news reports about tragedies of migrant workers being killed in various kinds of accidents. There are some such gruesome instances: a) May 16 in Auraiya, Uttar Pradesh, 27 migrant workers were killed and 33 injured when a trailer truck carrying sacks of lime and 43 people rammed into a stationary truck with a number of migrant workers sitting inside it near a roadside eatery. b) May 8, a goods train in Maharashtra’s Aurangabad crushed and ran over 16 migrant workers, who fell asleep on tracks due to exhaustion, while walking towards their home in Madhya Pradesh. c) April 21: 12-year-old Jamlo Makdam died of exhaustion and dehydration after walking for nearly 110 kms from Telangana to her village in Chhattisgarh’s Bijapur district. She had gone to Telangana to work in the chilli fields. d) May 27: In Bihar’s Muzaffarpur a toddler was trying to wake his dead mother lying unattended on a railway platform. The woman was travelling in a Shramik Special train from Ahmedabad and was headed to Katihar. There are several such incidents, the welfare Government was expected to provide some help to the victims.
According to a media report the data base maintained voluntarily by four individuals has recorded 906 deaths between March 14 and July 4, 2020, and classified them under 10 categories. As per the data available on thejeshgn.com, the highest number of 216 deaths between March 14 and July 4 occurred due to the combined reasons of starvation and loss of money, 209 deaths took place due to road or train accidents and 133 suicides were also reported during lockdown. The database showed that 77 persons died due to lack or denial of medical care, 49 of them lost their lives because of alcohol withdrawal, 47 people had died of exhaustion, either due to the walk home or because of standing in long queues, while 49 migrants died in quarantine centres, and 18 succumbed to non-communal, lockdown-associated crimes. During the lockdown, 12 persons lost their lives in police excessive actions.
In last week of May, the cause of 238 migrant workers being killed in various accidents was analysed. The reasons for migrant workers’ deaths include: getting burnt to death in forest fires, being hit or crushed by truck/bus/trains, exhaustion, heart attack, blood in vomiting, chest pain, asphyxiation after falling in a deep pit, being trapped in snow, stomach pain, breathlessness, hunger, exhaustion, dehydration, fatigue, multi-organ failure, and snake bite, among others. The Government did not care to find out these causes and provide relief. It did not even hesitate to declare that it does not know.
Denial of information to Parliament
To a parliament question whether it was collecting or collating data on the number of workers of the unorganised sector, contract workers and labourers in the country, the Government answered: “no such proposal is under consideration”.
The CLC stated that a little more than 26 lakh migrant workers remain stranded across India and most of them are either in relief camps or at their workplaces. Journalist AkshayDeshmani of Huffington Post brought out the contradictions of the ‘data’, saying: “In a press conference in mid-May, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman estimated the number of migrant workers stranded across India after announcement of lockdown to be 8 crores. Further, the Narendra Modi government’s lawyers informed the Supreme Court in the last week of May that the administration sent 97 lakh migrant workers home between May 1 and 27. While 50 lakh migrant workers were sent home via shramik special trains, the remaining 41 lakh were sent through road transportation”.
Bangladesh’s newspaper ‘Financial Express’ wrote on June 14, that the scenario has also gained additional dimensions because of emerging facets resulting out of measures being adopted to try and control the growing after-effects and impact of the COVID on stranded migrant workers. This last aspect drew the attention of the world with reference to India. Oxygen of information is missing in hospitals, government, and democracy.