Right to Information

This Saturday, I had the opportunity to listen to Arvind Kejriwal, founder of Parivartan, speak about his work on the Right to Information (RTI) Act of India.

Arvind Kejriwal is an Indian social activist and crusader for greater transparency in Government. He was awarded Ramon Magsaysay Emergent Leadership award in 2006 for activating India’s Right to Information movement at grassroots and social activities to empower the poorest citizens to fight corruption by holding the government answerable to the people.

[He] devotes full time to his work as the founder-head of Parivartan – a Delhi based citizens’ movement trying to ensure a just, transparent and accountable governance… [Kejriwal] campaigned for the Right to Information Act, which was passed in 2005. In July 2006, he spearheaded an awareness campaign for RTI across India. [wiki]

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p align=left>As we all know, the government agency bureaucracy in India is wrought with a culture of bribery and no real citizen accountability. The Right to Information Act has provides a way for Indian citizens to hold their government accountable, and has been doing so effectively.

Right to Information Act 2005 empowers every citizen to; ask any questions from the Government or seek any information; take copies of any government documents; inspect any government documents; inspect any Government works; and take samples of materials of any Government work. The Central RTI Act extends to the whole of India except the State of Jammu and Kashmir… All bodies…which are owned, controlled or substantially financed by the Government are covered.

If concerned officer does not provide information in time, a penalty of Rs 250 per day of delay can be imposed by the Information Commissioner. If the information provided is false, a penalty of a maximum of Rs 25000 can be imposed. A penalty can also be imposed for providing incomplete or for rejecting your application for malafide reasons. This fine is deducted from the officer’s personal salary. [link]

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p align=left>It was interesting to hear about the grassroots tactics around the RTI implementation Kejriwal used. This past July they ran a 15 day media campaign where they trained 1,500 volunteers and worked with 700 organizations across India. They worked with all of the major media outlets, and during that two week period 2,200 RTI reports were filled out. They coordinate with volunteers to stand outside of government agencies to inform citizens that if the agency tries to bribe them inside, to come return outside and receive help on filing an RTI report. They even have a blog to spread the word on RTI activities.

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p align=left>As a citizen driven movement to hold the government accountable, it seems that it has been very effective in India. Kejriwal told many success RTI stories — there was the story of citizens demanding the 22 rupees minimum wage pay in Rajasthan; of Nannu the daily wage worker who had his lost food ration card replaced five days after filing a report; and of Sharma who waited six months for a passport, but received his passport within days of filing. But a quick glance through the successes of the program really lets you know just how successful this movement has been.

Check out Parivartan’s site for more information. It sounds like a great organization and a great citizen’s rights movement they are pushing for. There’s many things that we as desis in America can do to support this movement in India – NRIs can write a support letter to Indian politicians or RTI commission members; you can support with funding fellowships; promote awareness about India’s RTI here in the U.S. as well as with family in India; or even figure out how US-India policies reinforce not supporting the RTI Act and mobilize through that angle. Kejriwal is currently on tour in America telling his story – check with your local NET IMPACT to see if he will be coming through to speak near you.

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About Taz

Taz is an activist, organizer and writer based in California. She is the founder of South Asian American Voting Youth (SAAVY), curates MutinousMindState.tumblr.com and blogs at TazzyStar.blogspot.com. Follow her at twitter.com/tazzystar

24 thoughts on “Right to Information

  1. Parivartan rocks. They do GREAT work and I’ve heard marvellous things about how much the RTI act has helped local activists and ordinary citizens hold the government accountable for little things and fight corruption. In terms of how overseas folks can help them out – dunno, could there perhaps be an RTI clause in development projects funded by the WB or international agencies, requiring full disclosure of expenditures and so on available at municipality offices or to ordinary citizens? AFAIK accountability is limited to donor agencies and implementing agencies currently…though some projects have social audits and local representative committees.

  2. Good read.

    I guess laws such as this will atleast help some Indian people, mostly the urban popluation.

    The Private sector regulates itself, if this law can do ‘anything’ to better the Indian administration or the average Raju’s experience with them – may the powers bless Kejriwal and his troupe.

    OK TATA Phir Milengey.

  3. Sounds very similar to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) here in the states. Even though FOIA has been reigned in considerably in recent years, and was never that effective in some areas of government, it is a very important piece of legislation. My concern with the indian law is that so much government business is done under the table with no real documentation, there might not be enough of a paper trail for the Act to be effective.

  4. Sriram – yeah, a lot of business is done under the table, but some very important business does leave a paper trail, most notably district development funds expenditure and the distribution of moneys from the hundreds of social welfare “schemes,” which is why corrupt babus have tried to invoke official secrets and keep this information from the public.

  5. From everything I’ve heard in India about activism and the like, it seems as if the kind of work that Parivartan does wouldn’t exactly be supported by the government and its supporters… I’m wondring how many death threats he’s received and I’m actually kind of surprised that he’s still alive, to put it bluntly. The amount of hypocrisy and corruption in India probably isn’t much more than anywhere else, but that government seems more willing to use other means to stop people who threaten them.

  6. Henna,

    He said no one has died yet- though some of his volunteers have been threatened and one female had her throat slit.

    He had an interesting philosophy about this- that there are “mutually beneficial” bribes, which deal in the lakhs of rupees, or smaller scale bribes of 1,000 rupees that hurt society and small time folks. He says they give power back to the people with the small time bribes. Usually it’s safe, he said- to work on the small scale stuff. But there are the “gunda” cases, and for those he recommends mobilizing a mass of people to file reports on an issue all together – safety in numbers.

    Sad though that a fear for his life in making sure a poor woman gets her wheat ration which the store front siphons off is a notable fear.

    My concern with the indian law is that so much government business is done under the table with no real documentation,

    From what it sounds like – Indian Constitution/laws DO require paper trails, the people just DON’T leave paper trails because they knew their boss/supervisor was as corrupt as they were – it’s the agency culture. Or if they do leave a paper trail of lies, no citizen group/media before 2005 had access to check the paper trail. A bigger concern of mine is what will happen if the Commission that manages the system falls corupt- i see no safeguard to that.

    Personally, I see a lot of this corruption being similar to the speakeasy monopoly era of 1920s and 1930s. I think the reason why the US system in so bureaucraticly slow with our governement agencies is because we went through this corruption stage in governemental history, and that’s where the piles of paperwork comes in.

    I also think about how here in LA at the City Council they have an “Ethics Commission” internally to train, and educate city officials to be ethically responsible – I wonder how effective that tactic would be in Indian government.

  7. US politicians make their money from professional lobbyists. India does not have professional lobbyists, so Indian politicians make their money from bribes. Government officials take bribes from the public and give a share to the politicians in power.

  8. PG,

    do you think that if they created a system of lobbyist in India similar to that in the US, that it would reduce the amount of “small time” bribery?

  9. In India you have to grease palms for everything. I myself have experienced it. This money involved is so small and there can’t no paper trial at all. For example, I was trying to move from one school and another and needed to get my educational certificates from the old school. I needed them fast. The clerk refused until I small-time bribed him. I am not sure RTI would have been useful (or lobbying :) ). These kind of things won’t be reduced until salaries of govt employees are on par with private incomes or greater awareness in the soceity.

  10. …salaries of govt employees are on par with private incomes

    Will never happen. Hasn’t happened anywhere in the world.

    …greater awareness in the society…

    Will not happen as long as we believe in stuff like first. Corruption has only increased since independence, while poverty continued to drop.

  11. Personally, I see a lot of this corruption being similar to the speakeasy monopoly era of 1920s and 1930s. I think the reason why the US system in so bureaucraticly slow with our governement agencies is because we went through this corruption stage in governemental history, and that’s where the piles of paperwork comes in.

    I’ve been saying the same thing when these discussions come up. India, atleast from how active the citizens are, the politics, types of politicans, etc. reminds me of the early 1900s in the United States.

    It almost seems that a growth of a representative republic endures this. India will come along. Paperwork and information all build into a process of validation/checks and balances.

    In many cases, it becomes an achillies heel when time/speed is a critical element, however, for the most part, all the documentation is necessary simply to keep tabs on everything and anything. When issues go to courts, all branches of the government get involved (legislative because they write the checks out, executive because they are the ones that need to do the work, and obviously judicial if its in a court). The right paperwork and documentation is the ONLY thing that can help level the playing field for the citizens, cutting through the grease to the effective truth. It may seem cumbersome (it is), but you’d be surprized how many times some old floating documents have come to government aid when you need it.

  12. …A bigger concern of mine is what will happen if the Commission that manages the system falls corrupt- i see no safeguard to that…

    In ultimate analysis the onus is on informed citizeny. President has the right to dismiss commission(ers) after a supreme court inquiry. Plain old checks and balances http://cic.gov.in/RTI-Act.pdf

  13. Taz:

    do you think that if they created a system of lobbyist in India similar to that in the US, that it would reduce the amount of “small time” bribery?

    I think the answer is yes.

    Politicians protect government officials from investigation because government officials share their money with them. That sort of protection makes government officials shameless.

    Suppose that a system of lobbyists were to exist. Politicians would no longer have to make their money from government officials. They would no longer have to protect government officials from investigation.

    On the flip side, politicians would protect the lobbyists from investigation.

  14. Taz – Did you meet Kejriwal in the U.S.? If yes, any idea whether he is still stateside and how does one get in touch.

    Many thanks in advance.

  15. Beware! Babudom is re-assembling its approach to RTI – check out this: http://www.ndtv.com/rti/fullstory.asp?story_id=441&city_id=4

    “Sought information regarding land transfer & nomination procedure.

    Submitted by syed zaidi

    I purchased a farm house in Bhopal.After the registry of the farm house when I approached the R.I.of the Revenue deptt.for name transfer and “Bahi”the Rin-Pustika”the R.I.incharge of that area asked 5000/-Rs.openly for the work to be done.When I asked him the legal procedure for the same he said he has no information. I made a letter along with all the formalities for the RTI addressed to the Asstt.Information Officer,O/o the Collector,Bhopal asking:”What is the procedure of nomination/name transfer after the residential plot or farm house is purchased ?Is there any form,fee ?What is the minimum and maximum time fixed for the process ?”Letter dated 17/01/2006. When I approached the RTI officer,i.e;the Joint collector,Bhopal city,he refused taking my letter and said that the information is available in the market go and buy it.I asked him to give me in writing-he misbehaved-because he is a joint collector and superboss ! I then tried to contact the Collector,the appelant authority but I was not allowed to meet him.With all the story in writing I then approached to the State Commission complaining that my letter was not accepted by the RTI officer.The under secty of the commission wrote me to appear before the commission on 2 June 2006 at 11 A.M. After hearing me the CIC disposed my complaint stating that the Joint collector was right not accepting the letter as my plea does not come under the RTI act.This way the CIC favoured and protected the Asstt Inf Officer. NOW WHAT SHOULD I DO ?????????”

  16. The current Central Information Commission filled with ex-bureaucrats has been reluctant to impose penalties on offenders. Evaluation of CICs functioning after first year. You can join the protest activities, here.

    If you are a part of an NRI or an Indian professional, entrepreneurial, regional, social, cultural or alumni group, association or network, then ask them to sign the formal letter of endorsement attached below, opposing the proposed Amendments to the Right to Information Act.

    It would be nice to see some NRI investor groups and bureaucratic associations come out strongly for strengthening this law.

  17. For Central departments as of 2006, there is a fee of Rs. 10 for filing the request, Rs. 2 per page of information and Rs. 5 for each hour of inspection after the first hour. States fix their own rules.[22] (wikipedia)

    I could see this as being used as a loophole to keep certain information from those who are poor. I for one believe that India, as a beureaucracy, has a huge volume of documented governmental processes that are not being carried out, and it is up to concerned citizens to fix atleast parts of the nation’s infrastructure. Perhaps it would be a good idea to start a donation website that could give/loan out the application fee for the RTI form?

  18. For Central departments as of 2006, there is a fee of Rs. 10 for filing the request, Rs. 2 per page of information and Rs. 5 for each hour of inspection after the first hour. States fix their own rules.[22] (wikipedia) I could see this as being used as a loophole to keep certain information from those who are poor.

    I wouldn’t be so negative. The fees are perfectly affordable by everyone, even the poor. Besides there has to be some fee. If not, the depts will be inundated with requests from people like me who are just curious to see if i will get a response, or from others who simply have nothing to do.

  19. The fees are quite modest. That might be waived at some time in future for the very poor. A bigger problem is cost of supplying the information ( paper and photocopying) since most of the information is in paper format. This act might accelerate computerization of govt records. Babudom hasn’t got into the habit of pro actively releasing information, which will preclude the need for filing applications.

    Perhaps it would be a good idea to start a donation website that could give/loan out the application fee for the RTI form?

    Many people have quit full time jobs to become RTI activists. Kejriwal and groups who planned his current visit are proposing a fund for supporting these people and other activities. Keep watching this space.

  20. I would like to know how to crub the misuse of RTI Act. There are many people who misuse this act for their selfish motives. I am a PIO at one University and the problem is that the Registrar of the University misuses this act by filing RTI for vague reasons and not for welfare of general public. this is undermining the scantity of this right. We have replied almost all the applications filed by him giving true information, but again he writes to me giving some information which he claims to be correct and not the information which i gave. so when he has all the information and when he is the registrar of a university for many years can he ask for information under this act? What can be done with this regard? Can anyone guide me with this regard?