How India’s ‘Right to Information’ Laws Put Power in the People’s Hands

Journalists, rights groups, and ordinary citizens are increasingly using India's Right to Information Act to hold officials accountable.

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Mahesh Kumar A. / AP

Laborers try to revive a dried lake under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, NREGS, at Ibrahimpatnam on the outskirts of Hyderabad, India

Sanjay Sahni, a 27-year-old electrical repairman, doesn’t consider himself an activist. Yet, this middle school dropout from the state of Bihar’s rural interior has brought hundreds of jobs to his village. His crusade began late last year in a nondescript cyber café in Delhi where Sahni, curious about a well-publicized government program, searched for the acronym ‘NREGA.’ Sahni speaks little English and had never used a computer, but after few hours of clicking, he stumbled on records from the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act. The program promises 100 days of unskilled work a year to India’s rural poor. According to his findings, 800 people in his community were receiving work and wages.

Sahni knew this couldn’t be right. He heard young men and women from his village, Ratnauli, complain incessantly about their chronic joblessness, and he himself had witnessed their plight.  After  a few days of research, his suspicions were confirmed. The majority of the alleged beneficiaries had worked far fewer days than the records suggested, he found, and had received substantially lower pay. Sahni and a small group of penniless villagers confronted a host of local officials and, eventually, all the names and payment details from the fudged lists were officially painted on the walls of the village councilman’s office. Hundreds have since received work building roads and digging ditches. And the village council office, once a symbol of bureaucratic graft, now stands tall as a sign of change.

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Across India, ordinary citizens like Sanjay Sahni are ushering in what some call an information revolution. Less than a decade ago, Indians had little access to information about how their government was being run and their tax rupees spent. Seven years ago, that began to change with the passage of the landmark Right to Information Act, which gives ordinary Indians the power to demand almost any information from the government with a simple application. Authorities are required to respond to requests within 30 days and hefty penalties have been set for defaulting officials, ensuring timely compliance and, so far, some notable successes.

“A few years ago, there was nothing in the world you could do to get an answer from the government,” says Nikhil Dey, a founder of Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan, an activist group that played a prominent role in the push for the law. “The right to information fundamentally changed the relationship between the citizen and the state.” Dey remembers meeting a bureaucrat in the 1990s who, on being asked for payroll information for a drought relief program, tucked the documents under his arm and stomped away. Now, records are routinely published by the government – be it on walls or websites.

Social campaigners, civil society groups and journalists have used the rule to expose governmental corruption and unearth bureaucratic inefficiencies. But people like Sahni, who lacked experience, education and connections, have also begun to ask questions, demand public documents, and challenge corrupt officials. “The individual has become powerful,” says Shailesh Gandhi, an Information Commissioner who hears complaints against bureaucrats withholding information. “You don’t have to be a part of a large group or organization to make your voice heard.” Instances of “citizen activism,” he says, are now “routine,” and a large number come from the most remote parts of the country. In the state of Tripura in India’s northeast, for instance, Sanjit Debbarma, a member of one of India’s indigenous tribes, filed dozens of right to information requests in an attempt to recover land belonging to his Reang tribal community from the state’s forest department. In May 2012, a court ruled decisively in his favor.

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This grassroots push for transparency could have powerful implications for India’s quest to ease poverty. In recent years, the country has launched a raft of large and often unwieldy social programs that have become notorious for wastage and corruption, with a small proportion of benefits reaching the needy. Better access to information is increasingly allowing India’s poor to demand their basic rights and challenge the rot in the system. In the southern state of Andhra Pradesh, for example, the “social audit” helps ensure a rural jobs program is being run cleanly. A team of over 3,000 youth, trained by an independent organization called the Society for Social Audit, Accountability and Transparency, regularly scours public documents and travels door to door in nearly 35,000 villages to crosscheck government records. They then hold community meetings to expose fraud. With the state government’s cooperation, the results of the “audit” are being followed up with rigorous action: $4 million lost to corruption has been recovered in the last six years, and nearly 15,000 officials have been dismissed, says Sowmya Kidambi, who runs the program.

Despite these successes, the call for transparency is not without risks. In questioning bureaucrats, many Indians, particularly those who work alone, are exposing themselves to intimidation and danger. According to a report by the Asian Center for Human Rights, 12 people have been murdered since 2010 in their quest to uncover the truth. “And we don’t even hear about the millions of incidents that take place in remote parts of the country,” says Suhas Chakma, the author of the report. The government has begun work on a whistleblowers law to protect those who flag-up malpractices, but already, activists are worrying it won’t be strong enough to deter violence.

Sanjay Sahni, the hero of Ratnauli, says he has come under pressure. He planned to move back to his village temporarily, but has not returned to Delhi, because he fears his departure would trigger a return to the old, corrupt regime. In his six-month crusade, Sahni says, local thugs have beaten him up on multiple occasions, and officials have threatened to bring false lawsuits against him. “But my struggle won’t stop,” he says. “This is the only way to get what is rightfully ours.”

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