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Jagdish Chandra Sharma sits with his grandchildren, Akash, foreground, Vikas, center; and brother Mahavir, right, at their home in Chandrawal, India. – AP

CHANDRAWAL, India: Jagdish Chandra Sharma absentmindedly rubs his aching, shattered left leg in the thick, 113-degree (45-degree Celsius) summer heat, as he weighs the cost of his family's battle against corruption.

Using India's Right To Information laws, they won stacks of government documents proving, they say, that their village chief had looted a government pension fund.

In return, Sharma was made a cripple, his son a widower, his young grandsons motherless. He is forced to live under 24-hour police guard.

When India passed its sweeping Right to Information Act in 2005, it was intended to give the poor and powerless a weapon to fight corrupt officials. And it has become wildly popular, with more than a million requests for government documents filed annually. Requests have revealed scandals such as unethical drug trials, shady business deals and illegal phone taps by government officials.

But there has been a tragic backlash as well. At least 12 right-to-know activists have been killed since 2010, according to the Asian Center for Human Rights. Many more have been beaten, harassed by government officials and ostracized from their communities. Rights groups are demanding tough legislation to protect the new group of community activists inspired by the law.

"The threats are always there," says Vineeta Singh, project director at Transparency International India. "We don't know how to support these activists."

Sharma and his family say they never sought to turn into anti-corruption crusaders in Chandrawal, a quiet farming village of about 2,100. As poor as the villagers are, their stone roads, concrete homes and two good meals a day mark them as relatively well off in an area where many have barely enough to eat and live in huts of mud and cow dung.

The story started last year, Sharma recounts, when a family friend, Phul Singh, was denied a government pension by the new mayor, Dharamvir Malik, also a political opponent.

On a lawyer's recommendation, they paid the fee of 50 rupees ($1) to a government office to request the names added to the pension roll that year. However, the office clerk called Malik to tell him of the application and refused to take it, Singh said. Undeterred, he filed it with a supervisor.

Meanwhile, Jagdish Sharma's brother, Mahavir, filed his own application seeking details about previous years in the pension plan.

The results in January showed that only 15 of the 70 new people registered for pensions were legitimate. Others were dead, fictitious or far too young to qualify.

According to the documents, Singh's pension was denied because he refused to go to the office every month to collect it, an accusation he dismisses as absurd.

The two men went to the police on Feb. 10 and managed to get a case of corruption registered against their mayor — a rarity in rural India, where powerful officials often bribe and threaten their way out of problems.

Malik was livid. The same day, in retaliation, he filed a case against them alleging they robbed him of $10,000 at gunpoint. And that night, he and a group of drunk cronies drove up to the family home in a minivan, shouting: "Come out, we'll give you your pensions," according to Jagdish Sharma, whose house is next to his brother's.

Jagdish Sharma asked them to leave, he says. When his daughter-in-law, Sonu, came out, the men grabbed her, tried to pull her into the car and hit her over the head with an iron bar, Sharma says. She collapsed to the ground and they ran her over, killing her, he says. He was also run over and his left leg was shattered so badly that he had three rods inserted inside and now walks with crutches.

Malik is now in jail, and police did not allow an interview.

The police investigation said Sonu Sharma had been killed after Malik tried to drive away from a scuffle between the two families, and authorities charged him with culpable homicide, according to local police official Vivek Sharma, who is not related to the family. But the court, apparently swayed by the family's version of events, overruled the police, and charged Malik with the more serious charge of murder.

Over the past eight months, the only information the family has received on the case has come from a flurry of right-to-know requests. That was how they found out local police had arrested Malik on lesser charges, prompting them to successfully lobby state authorities to take over the case.

It was also how they found out he had five registered guns. When they applied for a gun permit of their own and were rejected, they filed a right-to-know request to find out why.

Jagdish Sharma says the Right to Information law is not worth the damage. But his widowed son, Satbir, disagrees.

He speaks quietly because he doesn't want his two sons, ages 4 and 6, to overhear. He still hasn't told them their mother is dead, just ill and in the hospital. He is thinking of moving to another village about 6 miles away so no one will accidentally tell his boys they are motherless.

Sharma says the law has made the wealthy and politically powerful accountable. And without it, he says, they would have no way to monitor the case.

"At least we have the truth," he says. "It has been a curse for us because of what happened to us personally, but it is a good thing for the common man."

Comments (12) Closed

Zafar Nov 17, 2011 07:14pm
My heart goes out for you dear Sharma family. I wish we could share your pain and suffering and help you in your fight and sacrifices against the corrupt wealthy thugs.
Taatya Singh Nov 17, 2011 07:27pm
Good to hear that despite lack of smoothness, some laws are working out for the betterment of the masses.
Sandip Nov 17, 2011 08:52pm
I know this is a sad story but it is a begining in right direction. The guy is now in Jail and might go to gallows or atleast be in jail for long time. Once this starts corrupt people will think twice as they could surely go to jail. Well there is nothing free in this world and though sad it is that people have to die for this, I do think that lot of good will come out of this.
Mohinder sandhu Nov 17, 2011 10:32pm
RTO was introduced couple years ago in india,It has worked magic for thousands of people.It is a great tool in peoples hand to fight corruption,but at the same time it has resulted in violent deaths.Once everything settles down more people will come forward to use this law.This is the great way to fight.The village chief of Mr sharma's village may not get punished but he has been exposed and will not be elected next time and his influence over the people will die down aswell.
Nitin Nov 18, 2011 02:59pm
Well...its is both sad and at the same time heartening to know that RTI is 'working'. The fact that the incumbents feel threatened shows that the RTI is working and will continue to be an effective tool to fight corruption! Sometimes the society has to pay a price...whether the price to be paid is worth it, is something that only time will tell.
M.D.Bhasin Nov 19, 2011 12:46am
A very sad story. But the ‘Right to Information’ (RTI) act is a bold beginning and will prove to be the forerunner of so many good things including much debated ‘Lokpal’. At the same time, viruses do erupt in the otherwise healthy things. Hope, the civil society (the silent majority) will fight out such viruses.
Srinivas Nov 19, 2011 09:20am
Why don't you publish news which is encouraging to people rather than showing a system bad when it actually works. In a large country like India the count you are telling is very less.
Anil Chauhan Nov 19, 2011 10:45am
My sympathies with the Sharma family. Sonu Sharma will not come back, but I hope the family gets justice, and time heals their pain and sorrow. We most definitely need a Whistleblower bill which protects people like the Sharmas. At the same time, we need less government. Every aspect of government money is tainted with embezzlement. The solution is less money with the government and more with the people and society. The only good thing about government projects are their stated intentions. Everything else is a crime.
Cyrus Howell Nov 19, 2011 01:17pm
“Laws are like spiders' webs which, if anything small falls into them they ensnare it, but large things break through and escape” SOLON
Rajiv Kaushal Nov 19, 2011 01:58pm
Every age and time demands sacrifice... many people laid lives to make India a free country and many would do the same to make it corruption free country.... mood in India is not much different at this moment what it might have been during the independence struggle, people take off from offices and come to sit with Hazare... Many people would argue if the price of many lives is worth the result and i must tell you... Yes it is...
mehmoona Nov 20, 2011 12:03am
like any corrupt country.....honesty still seems to be the highest paid commodity, my heart goes out to jagdish sharma and his family
Joy vj Nov 27, 2011 04:15pm
there r many people in Kerala, who don't clearly understand about information act. we the rti activists must conduct the awareness programs for them.I tell my hearty thanks to Mr.Anilkumar(dfo office Kaduthuruthi) who told me about information act.