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In India, the hunt for information can be deadly

November 17, 2011

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."