MUMBAI: It's been a year since Sandeep Shetty quit his job and began fighting full time to bring his brother's killers to book. Court hearings and a botched up CBI probe have taken up much of his time over the last five years, ever since his brother Satish was knifed to death in Pune while using the Right To Information Act to expose land scams along the Mumbai-Pune expressway.
Satish is one of 10 RTI activists killed in Maharashtra, a state that has recorded the highest number of attacks, both fatal and otherwise, on RTI activists in India, a decade after the country passed its sunshine transparency act.
Data compiled by the Comonwealth Human Rights Initiative shows that 60 RTI activists were attacked, harassed or killed in the state, the highest for the country.
When it comes to murders, Gujarat and UP come second with 6 each, followed by Karnataka and Bihar with 4 murders each. When it comes to a count of activists attacked, killed or harassed, Gujarat comes second with 36, followed by UP at 25 and Delhi at 23.
Maharashtra has recorded the highest number of attacks — 60 — on RTI activists since the law was passed a decade ago, followed by Gujarat (36), UP (25) and Delhi (23).
"While we have no idea how many RTI applications are filed in UP, available data shows us that the highest number of RTI applications filed across India is from Maharashtra. This may have to do with organized networks of social activists and a long tradition of using RTI. People are more aware of social problems in the state. With such high volumes of RTI applications seeking information on accountability and governance and exposing corruption, it's natural that a number of activists will be under threat for taking on powerful people," says Venkatesh Nayak of Comonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI).
That a lion's share of RTI applications in the state are filed over land use may have much to do with why many of the RTI activists killed in Maharashtra were working on exposing land scams. Take for instance Abrar Shaikh, who was working to expose illegal construction in Bhiwandi when he was killed, or slain activist Vasant Patil who sought information on illegal construction in Mumbai.
"Land prices have hit the roof in Maharashtra. That's where all the money lies," says Shetty. After his brother's death in January 2010, he has had to battle a complicit state machinery. "Elements in the police force were involved in the plan to kill my brother. The police have, from the very beginning, attempted to dilute the FIR and were initially unwilling to record the names of those I had accused in my statement. On several occasions, the CBI investigation officer wanted a warrant to arrest those involved in the case, including some policemen, but he was not allowed to do so," says Shetty.
He adds that, while CBI's investigation officer had tonnes of evidence against those accused in the case, he was forced to file a closure report saying no evidence was found.
"I then moved the Bombay High Court which quashed CBI's closure. A new CBI team has now been formed to reinvestigate the matter," he said. Until the CBI closure report last year, Shetty juggled a job in Pune with frequent trips to Mumbai for the investigations. "My employer was kind enough to give me leave to fight the case," he says. But once the closure report was filed, he gave up his job to devote 100% of his time to fight the case. While he has dipped into his savings and does the occasional freelance job, his older brother who lives in the US supports him financially so that he can fight the case.