Protection of whistleblowers is government responsibility. Yet, it created circumstances leading to Ratan Sinh’s murder

Screen shot 2015-11-21 at 9.26.11 AMA fact-finding team* of the People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL), Gujarat, visited Banaskantha district to inquire into the incident of murder of Ratan Sinh, who had made an RTI plea to find out facts regarding the relief amount distributed in the wake of the devastating floods that rocked the district in in June-July 2015. Following is the text of the report:

During June-July 2015, some of the districts of Gujarat, such as Amreli, Banaskantha, Patan, Surendranagar etc. witnessed torrential and heavy rains that caused heavy loss of lives – human animals both and also damaged farm crops and fertile top layer of agriculture land due to heavy floods in the villages located on river banks. State and Central Government had announced relief packages too. The People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) decided to constitute fact-finding team to meet people and get first hand details from the people of some of the worst affected villages of Amreli district.

PUCL sent another team only recently to inquire about the murder of Ratan Sinh, a farmer who had lodged complaints to the chief minister’s office (CMO), the village sarpanch and the block development officer, called taluka development officer (TDO) in Gujarat about severe corruption in the distribution of relief package. He wrote to the CM to withdraw all the relief amounts paid to people due to heavy corruption, and carry out re-survey, as the relief has not reached to genuinely affected persons, and if reached, it is pretty small amount, whereas influential persons have grabbed cheques of big amounts, and that, too, in the different names of the same family.

PUCL has also tried to access information through RTI, particularly from the Gujarat State Disaster Management Authority (GSDMA). The following is the status of the Gujarat government so far as disaster management is concerned based on the information collected.

Status of Gujarat government for Disaster Management & Mitigation

The Gujarat government had initiated by establishing Gujarat State Disaster Management Authority (GSDMA) to mitigate or minimize losses due to natural calamities. The role of the GSDMA is to prepare and equip government and citizens to face the pre- and post-calamity period.

As per website of the Gujarat government, it has created adequate structure at district and block (taluka) level. GSDMA provides training and is also responsible for the planning of disaster management.

PUCL had sought information under RTI Act, including disaster management plans for Amreli, Banaskantha, Patan and Surendranagar districts, including what steps were taken to save the lives of people trapped in flooded areas, how many people were trained, and what kind of training was provided etc.

The information received by Jatin Sheth (PUCL) through his RTI application reveals that there was no advanced planning. The answers to various questions are ‘we have zero information’! Amreli district had only one boat for rescue of people, and that too iwas out of order.

The Disaster Management Plans displayed on the website are partial and without clarity. Further, they are not in regional language, Gujarati. People are unaware of any information about them. The government has been found absolutely ineffective towards disaster preparedness and mitigation.

The climate change department, too, does not have even its own website. Therefore, people do not have any access to information about them.

Survey of damages and losses and payment of relief fund

No information of relief fund survey is available online as the information is not displayed on any of the websites of the government, including the state government, the district collector and so on. The questions such as who received what relief amount, what were the parameters fixed for survey team, what to do and whom to approach in case of injustice, how many days it will take to resolve the complaint lodged etc. remain unanswered.

Many drawbacks in survey. Government does not have any planning for re-survey

The information which is supposed to be declared voluntarily at the village level has also not been declared and therefore the same had been demanded by Ratan Sinh’s friend Harkhabhai under the RTI Act. However, that information has not been provided till today, nor has it been declared at the village level.

The cheque amounts of relief funds differed from the amount shown in the list of amount shown against beneficiaries’ names. The payment register of the taluka development officer had incomplete information. No transparency and accountability was observed in relief fund distribution.

Risks for people who raised their voice against injustice

Ratan Sinh, Harkhabhai and others had sent their complaint to Chief Minister on October 7, 2015 through fax and later by post. As per routine, the same was transferred to the lower level on October 12. Harkhabhai filed RTI application on October 12. Instead of taking any action, the administration leaked the information to vested interests of the village. The accused attacked Ratan Sinh saying that he was lodging complaints against them.

Protection of whistleblowers is the responsibility of the government. Instead, the government created circumstances that led to Ratan Sinh’s murder. By declaring the whistleblower’s names, it put his life at risk.Even after one month of the murder, two accused out of four have not yet been arrested, and the two who were arrested have been freed on bail.

Following the murder of Ratan Singh, a total of 11 activists have been murdered in Gujarat. No effective actions have been taken in any of the cases.

RTI activists who have been murdered in Gujarat

  • Amit Jethva
  • Nadeem Saiyad
  • Vishram Dodiya
  • Jabar Dan Gadhvi
  • Amit Kapasiya
  • Shailesh Patel
  • Ratan Sinh Patel-Chaudhary
  • Rayabhai Gohil
  • Ketan Solanki
  • Jayesh Barot
  • Yogesh Shekhar

Information Commission misled

When a complaint was lodged to Information Commission, the department said that there was no RTI application pending of Ratan Sinh, which was incorrect, and an effort to hide facts. In fact, Ratan Sinh, Harkhabhai and two other villagers were complainants. After finding that no actions were taken, Harkhabhai files RTI application seeking information of what actions were taken in response to Ratan Sinh’s complaint.

We believe that government has not given all facts to the commission.

The status of government offices in newly declared talukas

The government took pride and declared as an achievement by creating new talukas. Suigam taluka office has almost no staff even after 18 months of creation. One or two persons have been placed in this office transferring from Vav – another taluka. The taluka development officer (TDO) informed us that he was unable to answer any of the complaints or RTI application since he had no staff.

Demands from Government

  • List of flood relief fund beneficiaries and the amount paid to them must be publicly disclosed by placing the information on public notice boards in all the affected villages
  • All the accused involved in the murder of Ratan Sinh bhai must be arrested immediately
  • A high powered committee be appointed to inquire irregularities in flood relief
  • Government should organize Public hearing at Suigam taluka place
  • Government should immediately make all information available online
  • Government should appoint grievance resolution officer to resolve complaints
  • There is a need to rethink guidelines for survey and deciding flood relief amounts
  • Government should recover flood relief given for the same reason to more than one person living in the same house

*Members of the fact-finding team: Jatin Sheth – PUCL, Pankti Jog – Mahiti Adhikar Gujarat Pahel, Mahesh Pandya – Paryavaran Mitra and activist, Nita Mahadev – Gujarat Lok Samiti, Meenakshi Joshi – Movement for Secular Democracy

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