In October, community activists from around India gathered at the Nehru Memorial Museum & Library in New Delhi to celebrate the third anniversary of the country’s Right to Information Act and assess the progress made under the landmark law. One speaker told how the law had produced a measure of belated justice after the 2002 riots between Hindus and Muslims in Gujarat state left more than a thousand dead and 150,000 homeless.
Dissatisfied with the pace of police investigations, a number of Muslims filed public-records requests to track the progress of their cases. Their scrutiny pressured police into arresting one hundred suspects.
Nikhil Dey, one of the champions of the law, choked up when he took the microphone to comment. “I’m sorry,” he said, bringing his hand to his face.
“Don’t be,” came a voice from across the hushed conference room. “We should all have tears in our eyes.”
Dey regained his composure and explained to fellow advocates why the Gujarat example was so poignant. “Completely non-accountable, brazen people who put the Constitution aside can be brought to book by their victims,” he said.
There’s no denying the emotional impact and political potential of India’s young law granting citizens the right to access government documents. For a nominal fee—in most cases, ten rupees, or twenty cents—an Indian citizen can step up to the scariest government agency and take his or her shot. The law applies to the bulk of paper and electronic information collected by public agencies, from federal ministries to the smallest rural village, as well as the files of private organizations that are “substantially financed” by the government. Citizens can even request samples of materials, like cement, used in government projects. The law contains a number of exemptions for records that, among other things, might compromise national security, endanger life and safety, divulge trade secrets, or that relate to the riot-prone state of Jammu and Kashmir. It gives an agency thirty days to either deliver the information or reject the request. And unlike the U.S. Freedom of Information Act, the Indian law comes with some bite: bureaucrats who stall, give misinformation, or refuse to hand over records without reasonable cause can face personal fines up to twenty-five thousand rupees, or $520.
Born of a decade-long, Mahatma-like protest movement staged by peasants, the act, which took effect in 2005, has unleashed a surge of civic engagement in the world’s largest democracy. In the first three years, citizens have filed hundreds of thousands of requests with federal, state, and local agencies, shaking out everything from construction budgets and neighborhood maps to school exams and road surveys. Armchair reformers and nongovernmental organizations like Greenpeace have used the law to halt illegal commercial construction, expose embezzlement in poverty food programs, and track the development of genetically modified crops on the subcontinent. They’ve embarrassed leading politicians for such things as spending public emergency funds on mango festivals and wrestling matches. Most of all, the law is changing the zeitgeist in a society where people have participated in free elections for fifty-six years but have been otherwise shut out of the daily decisions by a notoriously secretive and corrupt government bureaucracy. “The one difference the RTIhas made is that a citizen who used to feel helpless when he approached a government department doesn’t feel helpless anymore,” says Arvind Kejriwal, an information-law activist and founder of the anticorruption group Parivartan in Delhi. “He can challenge the department. He can challenge the bureaucracy. He can challenge injustice.”
What is still unclear, however, is whether the law will live up to its potential as a game-changer by challenging the government’s systemic lack of transparency and accountability. Expectations are high for a measure that represents the most sweeping government reform yet in a country that still doesn’t require the disclosure of campaign contributions during political races or have a legal framework to encourage and protect whistleblowers. Despite the impressive testimonials and the isolated successes, fundamental change will come slowly, incrementally, and with plenty of setbacks. The information act has pried open the workings of government, instilling a fear in bureaucrats that their movements can now be tracked, but has yet to deliver the larger reforms its supporters envisioned. “Transparency? Yes,” says K. K. Misra, chief of the commission set up to oversee the act in southern Karnataka state, which includes the city of Bangalore, an outsourcing hub. “But accountability and a better government? The eradication of corruption? That is a more time-consuming process.”