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India: New freedom to find information

In the world's largest democracy sunlight is, indeed, a powerful disinfectant.

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.