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India's most vital tool for fighting corruption is bleeding from a thousand cuts.
NEW DELHI, India — Empowered by a groundbreaking new law designed to help ordinary citizens fight corruption, Jagdish Sharma took on the leading clan of his village to expose the alleged theft of an elderly residents' pension money last week. But his triumph was short lived.
Just days after Sharma filed his case against the village head, Dharambir Malik, using India's Right to Information (RTI) act, Malik allegedly plowed down Sharma and several other protesters with his SUV — crushing Sharma's legs and killing his daughter-in-law, Sonu, according to local press reports. And though police say murder charges have been leveled against Malik, India's RTI crusaders argue that Sonu's death is the latest in a thousand cuts that are slowly killing the country's most powerful tool in the fight against corruption.
"This is a message to anyone raising their voice against corruption, that you will be killed," said Arvind Kejriwal, one of the leaders of the decade-long campaign for the RTI Act.
At least a dozen whistleblowers have been murdered for daring to expose crime and corruption since the RTI act was passed in 2005, according to activist Parshuram Ray. But rather than strengthening the law and fighting to protect the citizens who use it, the government is backpedaling fast to strip RTI of its sweeping powers, even as politicians and bureaucrats have adopted an informal go-slow policy that threatens to make it obsolete.
Already, by 2015, the Central Information Commission — the body responsible for addressing complaints when officials give incomplete or evasive answers to RTI requests — will face a backlog of 90,000 cases, which means an applicant would have to wait up to six years for an appeal. And the situation is all too likely to get worse.
"Despite all the provisions of the act, at every level information is being denied, and nothing is happening. Nobody is being punished for that," said Ray, who faced stonewalling when he sought to use RTI to expose corruption in a national program that provides work and wages for the rural poor. "The reality is that the original aims and objectives of the RTI act have almost been shattered."
The success or failure of these efforts to hamstring India's information law could well mark a turning point in the country's escalating battle against corruption, as well as the struggle for basic human rights.
The volume of alleged corruption exposed in recent months has been dramatic enough to raise fears that failure to rein in crony capitalism could derail the India rise to prominence on the global stage — especially after it was revealed that foreign direct investment has plunged 60 percent this year.
But the drama might actually be a sign of progress — showing not that corruption is increasing by leaps and bounds, but that more and more scandals are coming to light. And as bruised and battered as it may be, say some activists, that's down to the RTI. Not only did the act play a direct role in exposing two of the largest recent corruption scandals involving the telecom and defense ministries, says Nikhil Dey, another RTI pioneer, but it has also made it much easier for whistleblowers inside government to leak information without fear of reprisals, since an RTI filing from a newspaper is a speedy way to end a witchhunt.
"Once you enter the domain of open information, even a leak is legitimized much more," said Dey. "Before, the press had to think of a million ways to legitimize the information, because otherwise their source would be traced and persecuted. Now, because RTI is so extensive and powerful, it makes it very difficult for someone to say, 'How did this information get out?'"
Indeed, when it was passed in 2005, the RTI act promised a sea change in governance. By granting citizens the right to demand transparency, it swept out the colonial era practice of denying access to even the most mundane details of government programs under the official secrets act. It sought to pre-empt bureaucratic sloth and obfuscation by requiring government departments to respond to requests within 30 days. It mandated that every department computerize and make public its records proactively so that citizens could eventually access most information without filing a request. And it put in place stiff penalties for officials who refuse to comply.
But as individual citizens and civil society groups discover more and more ways to use the law, various efforts to undermine the RTI are gathering momentum. Virtually no department has voluntarily complied with the provision requiring proactive disclosure. Everyone from the Supreme Court to the Central Bureau of Investigation is fighting to be declared exempt from information requests. The government is seeking to amend the rules governing RTI requests in a move that activists say would make the procedure more arcane and thus make it easier for bureaucrats to justify stonewalling.
The information commissions are also being starved of resources. There are only six central information commissioners instead of the allotted 11, for instance, and limitations on hiring additional staff prevent them from clearing their backlog of complaints. Meanwhile, at the state level matters can be even worse. In Orissa and West Bengal, for example, the information commissioners are so far behind that they'll need more than 10 years to clear their present backlog of complaints, according to a survey by the Public Cause Research Foundation — and that's if they don't receive any appeals over the next decade.
"The reluctance to part with the information is just part of an old mindset," said Dey. "Very often if bureaucrats meet together they exchange notes about how they can avoid revealing information."
And that teamwork might be working, according to Anjali Bhardwaj, who heads Satark Nagrik Sangathan, an non-governmental organization that trains citizens to use the RTI act. At the grassroots level, India's bureaucrats are getting more and more clever at sidestepping the law. Aware of the long delays of an appeal, officials routinely refuse to disclose basic information about government activities by claiming it would violate the right to privacy, require applicants to prove their citizenship before they'll accept the request, or use the arcane structure of the bureaucracy itself to send them from one public information officer to another like Kafka's man before the law.
In the latest twist, most government bodies are putting low-level functionaries in place as public information officers so that even if they are sincere they don't have the clout needed to get documents from their colleagues.
"It clearly looks like a very deliberate move in government departments," said Bhardwaj.