India: New freedom to find information

BANGALORE, India — In a country that has the dubious distinction of topping almost every ranking of the world’s corrupt, bribe-taking countries, a law called the Right to Information Act is altering the equation between the gigantic government and its vast citizenry.

The Right to Information Act — popularly called the RTI — was enacted as national law four years ago to pry open the opaque nature of governance in India.

Now do-gooder activists, zealous citizens and eager lawyers are turning RTI into an effective tool to whip India’s gargantuan democracy into shape. Acknowledging its power to shake up the age-old establishment, the Delhi High Court noted recently, “Sunlight is a powerful disinfectant."

“For the first time in six decades since independence, the common man has the power to right Indian democracy,” says Vikram Simha, a banker-turned-voluntary RTI activist in Bangalore.

Until recently, disclosure of public records was banned under "Official Secrets Act 1889" dating back to British rule. The RTI now allows Indians, for a small fee, to access any official record of the federal or state governments, with the exception of documents about the troubled Jammu & Kashmir state, and individuals’ income tax and medical records. Public authorities are required to respond within 30 days.

Indians are using the RTI for a range of uses, from questioning delays in getting power supply or water connections to their homes, to fixing the poor drains and missing street lights in their neighborhood — all without “chai-paani," or Hindi slang for bribes.

In New Delhi, slum workers have banded together to drive an anti-bribery campaign with RTI, using it to apply for passports, driving licenses or birth certificates.

Enthused by these small successes, Indians are starting to question major government decisions. In recent weeks, RTI has been used to scrutinize the joint statement by India and Pakistan which de-linked diplomatic talks from terror attacks. That statement, along with its drafts and file notings, is now open to public scrutiny.

A textile trader from one of New Delhi’s old markets shook up the country’s top court by posing an innocuous question on whether members of the Supreme Court had filed a list of their personal assets, as required, to the chief justice. That eventually led to the Act extending to the office of the Chief Justice of India, the head of India’s highest court. The Chief Justice was forced to defend the daily allowance he sought for his wife during a recent foreign tour.

In another case, involving the disappearance of the famed Indian freedom fighter Subhash Chandra Bose, a Mumbai resident questioned the basis of the government recognizing the German-born Anita Pfaff as the biological daughter and descendant of Bose’s Azad Hindu Fauj organization.

But, for some, shining light on wrongdoing has proved dangerous and deadly, particularly with land and property issues, which make up more than a third of all RTI queries.

In January, activist Satish Shetty — who had knocked the cover off several land scandals — was murdered in Pune. In Mumbai, another activist was shot. In Bangalore, RTI activists are talking about networking to stay safe.

Delhi-based RTI lawyer Divyajyoti Jaipuriar has authored a book on RTI. He says the Act is so far mostly being used by India’s urban, educated middle class. The benefits are yet to spread to millions of poor, rural Indians.

But Jaipuriar expects the use of RTI to gradually extend to the rest of India and force fairness in all government decision-making.

“When the poor begin to feel empowered by RTI, the government’s cocoon will be gone,” he says.

Editor's note: This article has been updated to include the correct spelling of Vikram Simha's name.