Right to Information in India: An Effective Tool to Tackle Corruption
September 28, 2011
September 28 is celebrated internationally as Right to Know Day, highlighting the critical importance of people’s right to access information held by their governments. In India, following a nationwide campaign led by grassroots and civil society organizations, the government passed a landmark Right to Information Act in 2005. Since then, social activists, civil society organizations, and ordinary citizens have effectively used the Act to tackle corruption and bring greater transparency and accountability in the government. Social activist Aruna Roy has described India’s RTI Act as “the most fundamental law this country has seen as it can be used from the local panchayat(a unit of local government) to parliament, from a nondescript village to posh Delhi, and from ration shops to the 2G scam.”
Last month, thousands of Indians remained glued to their television sets as veteran social activist and anti-corruption crusader Anna Hazare ended his 12-day fast. A stalwart of the RTI movement, the 74-year-old Gandhian’s campaign for a strong anti-corruption agency in the country, or Jan Lok Pal, galvanized tremendous public support with citizens coming out on the streets of Delhi, Bangalore, and other cities to voice their anger and discontent over mounting corruption in the country. While the debate on corruption in the country rages on, the RTI Act is fast emerging as an effective anti-corruption tool.
Right to Information laws, or “sunshine” laws as they are commonly called, grant citizens the legal right to access information held by their governments, bringing much-needed transparency in the otherwise opaque functioning of government. Globally, more than 80 countries have now enacted such laws, with the list growing each year. India’s RTI Act is internationally recognized as a strong and effective law. Over the last six years, the RTI has been used extensively by ordinary Indian citizens to demand a vast range of information from their government.
Unlike many countries where RTI laws have been used primarily by journalists and the media, in India the law has a broad base of users. A 2009 study estimates that in the Act’s first three years alone, close to two million RTI requests were filed in different parts of the country. Case studies and media reports show that RTI is being used to redress individual grievances, access entitlements such as ration cards and pensions, investigate government policies and decisions, and expose corruption and misuse of government resources.
For many, particularly India’s poor and disadvantaged, the simple act of filing an RTI application is empowering, and often leads to tangible results. In 2010, K.S. Sagaria, a resident of Kushmal village in rural Orissa, filed an RTI application seeking information on the number of ponds constructed in his village under the government’s national wage employment scheme. The information he received was revealing: the ponds had never been constructed even though money had been allocated and spent. Following complaints from villagers, the local administration was forced to take action and suspend the officials involved in the pond scam. In addition, a recent experiment by students at Yale University found that India’s RTI Act can be as effective as bribery in helping the poor access their entitlements. As part of the experiment, slum dwellers in Delhi were divided into four groups and asked to submit applications for ration cards. While the first group submitted their application and did not follow up, the second group attached a recommendation letter from an NGO to their application, the third group paid a bribe and the fourth group filed an RTI request to follow up on their application. Yale Ph.D. students Leonid Peisakhin and Paul Pinto found that while the group that paid a bribe was the most successful, those that filed RTIs had their applications processed nearly as fast. According to Peisakhin: “Access to information appears to empower the poor to the point where they receive almost the same treatment as middle-class individuals at the hands of civil servants. This is something that payment of a bribe cannot do.”
Civil society organizations here have played an important role in raising public awareness about RTI and assisting citizens in filing requests for information. For example, Delhi-based NGO Satark Nagarik Sangathan (SNS) runs an information center in South Delhi to assist local residents and slum dwellers to file RTI applications. Using RTI, SNS has successfully campaigned for improvements in the quality of public services including water, sanitation, the public distribution system, and even the performance of local elected representatives. In addition to such initiatives, the law is increasingly being used to tackle high profile corruption. Much of the information regarding corruption in the allocation of tenders and contracts for last year’s Commonwealth Games was unearthed using RTI. In 2010, a series of RTI applications filed by the Housing and Land Rights Network, a Delhi-based NGO, revealed that the Delhi government had diverted funds from its social welfare programs for infrastructure development under the Commonwealth Games.
Using India’s RTI is not without its risks, however. RTI activists have increasingly come under threat and attack, with many suffering fatal injuries. Over the last year, a number of RTI activists were murdered in different parts of the country, causing widespread alarm among civil society groups. Most of those killed were investigating irregularities in sectors such as mining, land, and local elections where corruption is rampant. Civil society organizations are now demanding that the government take concrete measures to protect the lives of such individuals. Despite these risks, the RTI Act has continued to grow in popularity among citizens and activists alike.
While activists are split on whether the RTI has led to a reduction in corruption in India, most agree that the law is a critical step in the right direction. Speaking to The New York Times, RTI activist Shekhar Singh said that the main objective of India’s RTI movement was to empower people, concluding that “this law has done that – given the people the power to challenge their government. That is no small thing.”
Mandakini Devasher Surie is The Asia Foundation’s program officer in India. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation.
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