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Assaults, false cases: Mumbai RTI activist's murder highlights dangers faced by civic crusaders

Bhupendra Vira, who battled illegal constructions, was shot dead in his home last week.

In the past six years, Bhupendra Vira filed more than 3,000 applications under the Right to Information Act regarding encroachments and illegal construction in his neighbourhood in Kalina, Mumbai. On the night of October 15, the 61-year-old’s activism was brought to an abrupt halt when he was shot dead by an intruder at home.

Two days later, on Monday, the Mumbai Police arrested Razzaq Khan, a former corporator, and his son Amjad Khan for the activist’s murder. The Khans were the biggest targets of Vira’s RTI inquiries. They had allegedly taken hold of the activist’s godown illegally and had also been arrested in 2010 for assaulting his son.

Vira’s murder has not come as a surprise to activists like him who routinely use the transparency law and public interest litigation to take on the land, mining and sand mafias. Since the RTI Act came into force in 2005, citizens who have used it have been vulnerable to threats and attacks from those they have targeted. In the first 10 years of the law, at least 39 activists have been killed across the country and another 275 assaulted.

In 2011, the Whistleblowers Protection Act was introduced, and amended in 2015, but it has been criticised as an ineffective paper tiger. Activists in Mumbai, where real estate irregularities are rampant, claimed they have learnt to live with the death threats, intimidation, false cases and assault.

“Expecting police protection is pointless for many of us,” said Dayanand Stalin, an environment activist with Mumbai-based non-profit Vanashakti. “I have found that the police often end up protecting the offenders rather than the activists.”

Saving a mangrove

Harish Pandey did not know Bhupendra Vira, but when he read about the latter’s murder, he could not help but think that it could easily have been him instead.

Pandey’s apartment in Dahisar, Mumbai’s northernmost suburb, is close to a notified mangrove forest. In 2009, when he noticed that nearly 425 acres of the dense forest had been destroyed by bunds, he decided to file an RTI application. Several queries later, he uncovered some dubious dealings. The forest land, originally owned by an old salt manufacturing company, had been handed over to a real estate group, which had obtained questionable approval from city authorities to start building bunds on the land.

“The approval had ostensibly been given for the purpose of cultivating salt, but it came with a rider that the mangroves could not be cut,” said Pandey, a businessman and secretary of the New Link Road Residents’ Forum. “How is that even possible?”

Over the next three years, Pandey and his team at the residents’ group filed numerous complaints with the state’s revenue department to bring the violations on record. The state, in turn, filed police cases against the builder, which Pandey diligently followed in court. As a citizen activist, he had fought illegal construction before, but this time the backlash was intense.

“From 2009 to 2012, I was threatened with dire consequences several times,” he said. “I once got a call from someone who said I would be killed and buried in the mangroves if I did not stop. At one point, the builder’s goons attacked my car. Once, a group of them surrounded my building, came up to my doorstep and threatened my wife and son. My watchman was thrashed. They openly offered me crores to give up the case.”

Pandey went to the police to ask for protection. He said he was called to the police station several times to give his statement, but was never given protection. He feared for his life and that of his family. But he was determined to follow up on his complaints as a matter of integrity, he said. Even when a few members of his team opted out of the fight.

“I had to take some hard decisions," he said. "I sold my car so we could travel untraced, and our movements had to be restricted.”

The real estate group filed a counter case against Pandey and two of his fellow activists, accusing them of attempt to murder and demanding Rs 10 crores in extortion money. “This is the standard modus operandi, implicating activists in false cases,” Pandey said. “In this case, the builder’s allegations were quashed when we moved the High Court.”

Finally, in 2012, Pandey won the fight with a court order to the builder to pay a fine for destroying 425 acres of notified forest land. Since then, Pandey has worked on several other cases of land grab and continues to face threats and bribe offers from affected companies and politicians.

“I am not going to give up, but one precaution I have taken is to make myself debt-free,” said Pandey. “That way, no one can blackmail my family if something happens to me.”

Police involvement 

Like Harish Pandey, Dayanand Stalin – a full-time environment activist fighting to protect mangroves, wetlands and forests in Maharashtra – is no stranger to threats, intimidation and false cases.

“When I enter mining sites, my exit routes are often blocked by the mafia, and I have to use my influence with the residents to help me get out,” said Stalin. “At least on three occasions, I have been charged with trespassing on government or private property. But they have never been able to prove these allegations in a court of law.”

Three years ago, Stalin was leading a campaign to block illegal mining in the Western Ghats in Sindhudurg district. “I had already been threatened by the mining mafia multiple times and on one occasion, when I was supposed to address a village meeting, there was an attempt to kill me,” he said.

Stalin was on his way from Goa to Sindhudurg to attend the meeting when he got a call from well-wishers telling him to stay away because an attack on him had been planned. As his car approached the meeting venue, Stalin said he saw what appeared to be a group of protestors standing outside. “When my friend approached the mob, the goons engulfed him but when they realised it was not me, they began to ask specifically for me,” he said. “It was clear that they were not there just to protest.”

Stalin also claimed there was a clear nexus between various land and mining mafia and the police. He said that on several visits to the Kanjurmarg landfill in Mumbai last year to document garbage dumping violations, police vans had met him within 10 minutes of his arrival. “They would tell me I could not enter the site without permission, but they did not target any other civilian going in,” he said. “And how would they even find out I was there? Clearly the contractor at the dumping ground had a lot of influence with the police.”

Despite Vira’s murder and his lack of faith in the police, Stalin said he was committed to his work. “These dangers are an occupational hazard,” he added.

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