Fact-finding report on RTI activist Abhimanyu Panda killing in Kandhamal, Odisha:
Yet the dreadful retaliation against the messenger of the truth witnessed again in the early morning of the Human Rights Day, 10th December 2019 with the killing of Right to Information Activist Abhimanyu Panda at his residence of Baliguda under Kandamal District of Odisha by questioning the protection and security of the Whistle Blowers; and challenging law and order situation of Odisha and country’s anti-corruption apparatus. It also asks, where is the State? Isn’t Odisha a safe anchorage for corrupt criminals who enjoys impunity?
Since inception and practical implementation of the Right to Information (RTI) Act -2005, Odisha has already witnessed four killings of RTI Activists, including the present gruesome killing of Abhimanyu Panda, who was being threatened, discouraged and subjected to torture prior to his killing. Is it his sin for coming forward and exposing the wrongdoing in public life?
It has been a growing trend and pattern in Odisha that whistle blowers who have used the RTI law to expose scams and corruption are identified, coerced, criminally intimidated and killed. The law enforcement agencies which are meant to keep law in force are helping the perpetrators of corruption and crimes having unholy nexus. Non-registration of First Information Report concerning the matter of whistle-blowers and registration of counter criminal cases by Odisha police have been challenges and made Odisha a hostile state for the messengers of truth and transparency.
Odisha’s RTI action introduction
Since day of implementation of RTI Act, RTI Activists are seen quite vulnerable in Odisha. The trend of brutal attack on RTI Activists and their family members rises alarmingly. RTI Activists and RTI users are always seen at loggerheads with the State administration; corrupt Govt. officials, land mafia, education mafia, contractors while exposing corruption, irregularities in government run institutions and programs, malfunction of administration, favoritism and manipulation in government appointment and public contracts, malpractice in procurement etc. The RTI expose has not only put the government in trouble but also has brought to limelight the true character of so-called eminent people of society uncovering their crimes and real character. Armed with information obtained through RTI, activists have taken up various issues by approaching High Courts, Human Rights Commissions, Central Vigilance Commission, CBI and Tribunals like National Green Tribunal for justice. The continuous and constant endeavour of Activists, from the fields of human rights, environment, and to right to information, furthering the fights against the corruption and maladministration has endangered their life by organized coterie of powerful politicians, bureaucrats and mafias. More than 50 RTI Activists have been beaten up severely, harassed, tortured and charged with fabricated criminal cases and their pity stories have gone unnoticed. The recent attack on the RTI Activists in Odisha is not only mere incidents, but it exposes new pattern of attack with well-organized manner to annihilate RTI Activists and subsequently make RTI Act dysfunctional in the state.
The case of RTI Activist Abhimanyu Panda, Baliguda, Kandhamal
Abhimanyu Panda, aged about 58 years, a native of Bataguda villages, who was residing until his killing in Baliguda town under Kondhamal district, was one of the leading RTI Activists of the state. In 2008, he joined as RTI Campaigner, continued till his death and remained an active member of Odisha Soochana Adhikar Abhijan. He is survived by his wife, a son and daughter. He had developed his own expertise of working on RTI and successfully exposed many issues of corruption and irregularities in public assets. In officialdom, and among the corrupt, he who was recognized as a trouble maker.
Contrary to the values and the spirit of human rights and democracy, a shadowing news flash concerning the cold-blooded murder of Abhimanyu Panda not only saddened the Odisha Soochana Adhikar Abhijjan, but also put many challenges how the public wrong doing by corrupts be addressed! The news was: RTI activist Abhimanyu Panda killed at his residence at 7: 30 AM of the 10th Day of December, 2019. Having learnt the same, Odisha Soochana Adhikar Abhijan, hereinafter referred as OSAA immediately commissioned a fact-finding team with the purpose of meeting bereaved family members and be with them, console them, gather information about the incident and factors leading to Abhimanyu’s killing. Accordingly, a five-member team travelled to Baliguda , 350 kms from Bhubaneswar, consisting of:
1. Pradip Pradhan, RTI Activist and convener of OSAA
2. Dr. Subash Mohapatra, Human Rights Activist and Advocate
3. Sri Muhammad Ziauddin, RTI Activist
4. Sri Anjan Rath, RTI Activist
5. Sri Jitendra Sahu, RTI Activist
Details of Visit of Fact-finding Team
The team visited his house at Baliguda and finding absence of family members went to Bataguda, native village, 12 kms distance from Baliguda to meet family members. The team also visited Baliguda police station, ITDA-Baliguda, Jagannath Temple and other linked places the incident thereto.
During interaction with family members, his wife Chhabirani Panda who is eye-witness of the incident narrated, “at around 7.30 am early morning, two unknown persons came to their residence and asked her to meet his husband Abhimanyu Panda. Accordingly, she informed her husband and engaged herself in her household works. After few minutes she heard about heated exchange of words of her husband with the said unknown persons. Suddenly she heard screaming and when she came out from her home, she saw that said two unknown persons were fleeing away by a motor bike and her husband is lying on the ground. She called family members and carried her husband by an auto-rikshaw to Hospital where the doctor declared, “brought dead” due to firing. On query about the reasons and life threats, if any for Abhimanyu, the family member Santosh Padhi, (brother-in-law of Abhimanyu) appraised the team that Abhimanyu’s RTI expose about mega scams in Sarangagada College, road construction work in Baliguda under Executive Engineer, Road and Building -Phulbani (Kandamal), PDS Scam in different blocks of Kandhamal District, huge irregularities in management of Jagannath temple, threats received by him from contractors, liquor mafia and few political people of ruling party. Getting clue from statement of family members about his RTI work, the team returned back to his house at Baliguda and inspected details of files containing series of RTI applications submitted to different authorities and complaints filed by him. The Team members discovered from files and available documents at his resident that his constant fight against corruption in various development work, filling series of RTI Applications and complaints to different authorities seeking inquiry into the matters thereto may be the reasons for his killing as it reveals many mega scams.
Few important cases are as follows which may be reasons and motif, as the team feels, behind murder of RTI activist Abhimanyu Panda.
(A) Mega corruption in construction work of Hostel in Kandhamal Mahavidyalaya, Sarangagada college
In 2013-14, PA, ITDA (Integrated Tribal development Agency), Baliguda sanctioned Rs. 3 crores for construction of 200 seated ST Girls Hostel building at Kandhamal Mahavidyalaya, Sarangagada under K. Nuagaon Block. Sri Ashok Kumar Panda, contractor and nephew of Krushna Mohan Panigrahi, leader of Biju Janata Dal , Ruling party ( this information was provided by Ajit Panda, younger brother of slain Abhimanyu Panda ) was handed over the work on dated 7.5.2015 vide agreement No. 7/2015. Though four year passed, neither the Contractor completed the work nor handed over the building to the College. On 14.10.19., Sri Abhimanyu Panda filed complaint to Secretary, Department of SC and ST Welfare alleging huge corruption and irregularities and misappropriation of fund and long delay in construction of hostel by Contractor Ashok Panda and problems faced by tribal students. On 18.10.19., he had filed RTI Application to the PIO, office of ITDA, Baliguda seeking details of information about project sanctioned, materials used, bill and vouchures against payments etc. From RTI Reply dt. 22.10.19., he found that Rs. 2,22,29,931.00 has been paid to the executant contractor who has sought another extension for completion of work . But details of payment and bill and vouchures were not provided on the ground of non-availability. On 18.10.19, the PIO wrote a letter addressed to Ashok Kumar Panda, contractor to provide details of information to be supplied to applicant. But the Contractor did not supply any information. After completion of 30 days, Abhimanyu filed first appeal dt. 19.11.19 seeking direction from First Appellate authority to provide information. Sri Abhimayu has alleged of misappropriation of Rs. 70 lakh by the contractor. As reported by Santosh Kumar Padhi, brother-in-law of Abhimanyu, Krushna Mohan Panigrahi, BJD leader had come to meet Abhimanyu at his residence and exerting pressure on him by engaging mediators, including an uncle of Abhimanyu to withdraw RTI and complaints. Abhimanyu has not bowed down before their pressure but pursued the matter at highest level.
(B) Mobilization against proposal for granting license to open IMFL Restaurant “ON” Shop at Kamapada under Ward No.1 of Baliguda NAC.
In 2017-18, the District Excise office, Phulbani had issued notification No. 1470 dt. 6.10.2017 for issuing license to open IMFL liquor shop without inviting public objections. Abhimanyu was involved in anti-liquor movement in the area and had opposed proposal of the District administration to issue license open IMFL Restaurant “ON” Shop at Kamapada under Ward No.1 of Baliguda NAC. He was behind filling the case in High Court , Odisha W.P. ( C) No. 9139/2018 ( Snehalata Mallik vs- State and others) in 2018 and got interim stay order with direction to the Collector, Kandhamal to hear the matter and follow procedure after hearing it. Abhimanyu had also mobilized public petitions against liquor shop and filed series of RTI Applications to the District Excise office , Phulbani for monitoring of the Govt. decision. License was held up by the District administration.
(C) Allegation of misappropriation and illegality in road construction work by Agency named Anusha Projects (P) Ltd., Hyderabad under State Highway Development Projects
Abhimanyu had exposed huge corruption, irregularities road construction work by Agency named Anusha Projects (P) Ltd., Hyderabad under State Highway Development Projects and made complaints to Executive Engineer, R& B, Phulbani, Collector, Kondhamal, Engineer-in-Chief, Building, Nirman Bhawan, secretary, Department of Works seeking inquiry into it. He had also filed a complaint case NO. 52/2013 in which High Court had ordered to approach appropriate authority for necessary relief. Then, he filed complaints the abovementioned offices for inquiry and filed series of RTI applications to monitor and to know the status of his complaints. His fight against this mega corruption may be another factor behind his murder.
(D) Reform in management Committee of Jagannath Temple, Baliguda
During interaction with family members, the family members had appraised his enmity and bitter relation with members of former Management Committee of Jagannath temple. Madhusudan Das, Managing Trustee had presented details of their struggle to save property of Jagannath temple from clutches of unscrupulous members of Management Committee. Both Madhusudan Das and Abhimanyu had worked together filling four writ petitions in Odisha High Court and petitions in Endowment Commission, Odisha against the then Management Committee following which the Endowment Commissioner reconstituted managing body on 26.7.16 with Madhusudan Das as Managing Trustee and Abhimanyu as Trustee member by ousting president and secretary Shyam Sundar Patra. Abhimanyu was instrumental and had played crucial role in obtaining eviction order from the court for ousting shop owners who were not giving monthly rent for years together but enjoying it illegally. He was also instrumental in issuing notice for open auction of 33 shops of temple and ousted many tenants from ownership of shops at Jagannath Temple. He also succeeded obtaining another order from Odisha High Court on 28.9.19 to evict Shyamsundar Patra, former secretary of the temple management from shop who was forcibly and illegally occupying it for years together without paying a single pie against the rent. Abhimanyu had series enmity with these shop owners and had received life threats from them.
(E) Filling of around 50 complaints on corruption of PDS rice.
On 6th and 7th Dec., 19, Abhimanyu had filed more than 50 RTI Applications to Panchayat Samiti of K. Nuagaon, Phulbani, G. Udayagiri and Daringbadi and few Gram Panchayats seeking information about details of allotment and distribution of rice to the beneficiaries ( year-wise), beneficiaries dropped from this scheme in each Gram Panchayat and their names etc. It was made to find out huge corruption in distribution of rice by gram Panchayat and dealers in the panchayats which has disturbed many dealers, Civil supply officers and sarapanchs in the area, as reported by family members and reflected in FIR.
Afterward of incidents
After death of Abhimanyu as declared by Doctor due to firing, Nirmal Kumar Sahu, a distant relative, filed complaint in Baliguda police station which registered as FIR with Case No. 188/19 dt. 10.12.19.
Findings and Recommendations
1. Till the writing of this fact-finding report (December 13, 2019), the police have not been able to arrest the accused and engaged in buying time in name of inquiry. The incident took place just 30 meters away from Baliguda police station. Investigation in the present form and manner is being conducted is unacceptable.
2. It is substantially learnt and the team members of fact-finding realized that Abhimanyu’s killing is organized; and the plot is conspired to finish him with ulterior motif to grab the public properties and assets by illegal means at ITDA-Kandhamal, PDS, liquor, and properties of Jagannath Temple at Baliguda, and this conspiracy made of with corrupt officers, political touts of the ruling party and tainted trustees of the said Jagannath Temple; and this is a crystal clear case of supari killing with aid of the conspirators.
3. It is further substantially found the Baliguda Police badly failed for conducting proper and impartial investigation as they are parties to this larger conspiracy against Abhimanyu Panda and his killing. It is impossible a through and impartial investigation by present IIC Barik and his team. To prevent further malpractice and evidence tampering during investigation, IIC Barik is required to be suspended along with his team.
4. We strongly demand that the said gruesome killing of RTI Activist Abhimanyu Panda must be investigated by a Special Investigative Team of good police officers taking into account the content of FIR, above-mentioned factors and the people involved in it. All culprits and conspirators must be arrested and put behind bar within time limit.
5. We also demand strongly that the Government of Odisha must provide 25 Lakh as an interim financial relief to the next kin(s) of the deceased.
6. We urge state Govt. to issue direction to all police stations and SPs to ensure protection to RTI Activists fighting against corruption and act promptly on FIR filed by RTI Activists with priority to investigate into the allegation.