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Page last updated at 12:02 GMT, Thursday, 26 February 2009

Biharis 'pay price' for information

By Amarnath Tewary in Patna, Bihar

Chandradeep Singh
Chandradeep Singh says he was jailed for three weeks (Photo: Paras Nath)

Nearly four years after the federal Indian government brought in the Right to Information Act, the northern state of Bihar has emerged as a model state in its implementation.

Bihar, one of India's poorest states, won a gold medal in Goa recently for its innovative information call centres.

But some of those who have sought out information have not had model treatment - they claim they have been harassed, intimidated and in some cases jailed.

Chandradeep Singh, a former army man, says he was put behind bars for 22 days after he sought information through the act on the police investigation into the murder of his son and daughter 12 years ago.

Map

Mr Singh says he sought information from a police station in Maner.

Mr Singh, who is in his 60s, says he was kept in Danapur jail on a rape investigation until a non-governmental organisation - the Bihar RTI Manch - intervened to win him bail.

Mr Singh, wearing his army medals on his sleeves, pedals about 26km (15 miles) every week to the Manch's office to keep up his fight for information.

"I want justice, nothing else. I have fought for the country and I'll not lose hope easily," he told the BBC.

An official at the Manch, Praveen Amanullah, was another to experience a tough time when trying to use the act.

She had sought information on medicine distribution from Patna Medical College and Hospital.

Gupteshwar Singh

I've been running for my life for the past month
Gupteshwar Singh
(Photo: Deepak Kumar)

She says she was shocked when hospital authorities asked her to pay 500,000 rupees ($10,060) for the information.

"Since then I started working for the rights of harassed RTI information seekers," Ms Amanullah told the BBC.

Gupteshwar Singh, an ex-businessman and father of three young children, says he was also asked to pay a huge sum for information on government schemes in his district he regarded as suspect.

He has also approached the Manch for help and says he feels threatened by government officials he may have exposed in his case.

"I've been running for my life for the past month," he says.

'Extortion'

Satyendra Narayan Yadav, from Nararipuri village in Madhubani district, says he is another harassed Act applicant.

I've become a subject of ridicule in my family and society, but I'll keep on fighting until I get justice
Satyendra Narayan Yadav
Mr Yadav says he was jailed from September 2007 to January 2008 after seeking information on government welfare schemes for the poor.

He says one government official took offence at the request.

"He lodged a case against me on charges of extortion and under other various sections of the Indian Penal Code and I was arrested and sent to jail," says Mr Yadav, who is currently on bail.

Mr Yadav says he approached Bihar's chief minister at a weekly people's court in April last year.

"But despite the chief minister's assurance nothing has happened yet," Mr Yadav says.

"I've become a subject of ridicule in my family and society," he says, "but I'll keep on fighting until I get justice."

Shiv Prakash Rai, from Buxar, says he too was jailed - for a month - after he sought information on schemes for the poor.

Mr Rai says a magistrate pressured him to sign to say he had received all the information he needed.

"When I refused, he slapped on a case of extortion of 25,000 rupees and sent me to jail," Mr Rai says.

Ms Amanullah, the Manch official and wife of state home secretary Afzal Amanullah, says: "It has become common practice for government officials to implicate the RTI applicants in false cases to discourage them."

She says she knows of 19 incidents in which RTI information seekers have either been harassed or implicated in false criminal cases.

The secretary of the state's information commission, SK Mishra, says that 262 government officials have been punished in the past year for not supplying information to RTI applicants.

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