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.”
Only 10 percent of India’s 1.1 billion people even know about the law, according to two recent studies. And those who do tend to use it do so to satisfy personal grievances, such as dislodging ration cards or passports without paying bribes. Some of the more aggressive users have been the bureaucrats themselves, who file requests to peek at civil-service exams and glean clues as to why they were passed over for promotions. Otherwise, the bureaucracy has given up ground grudgingly. It is estimated that only about half of all public agencies have made the proactive disclosures of basic information, like salaries and regulations, required under the law. Public-information officers, typically junior administrators, are poorly trained or are hidden from the public in anonymous offices. Reports persist of citizens being harassed when they attempt to file RTI requests.
These problems are compounded by the growing mountain of appeals from denied requests, which threatens to overwhelm the system. And the independent state and federal “information commissions” charged with hearing those appeals have been reluctant to fine uncooperative officials. The Central Information Commission in Delhi, which hears appeals involving ninety federal departments and forty-eight ministries and union territories, including the city of Delhi, has assessed penalties in fewer than 4 percent of the 6,400 cases it has considered so far in which fines were possible. Only a third of the 2.2 million rupees, or $46,500, in fines levied has been collected; a small portion of that has been put on hold, either because of new facts or through court appeals of commission decisions. But more than half of the fines are either scheduled to be deducted in installments from officials’ paychecks or remain seriously overdue, according to a Central Commission spokesman. The highest-ranking administrator tagged: the joint secretary in the Ministry of Environment & Forests, who was fined twenty-five thousand rupees in December 2007—and still hasn’t paid because she’s appealing the matter in civil court. The commission concluded she took a “very casual approach” to a subordinate’s request for twenty-year-old records relating to a court case the department initiated against him. The joint secretary took eight months to deny his request, then cited a nonexistent exemption in the RTI act to keep the documents secret, the commission found.