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.
Meanwhile, the mainstream Indian press has been tentative at best in its use of the new tool. Reporters for native-language publications, especially those at rural papers with small circulations, have been using the act, but often as a way to keep local officials honest rather than to ferret out stories. The leading English-language newspapers and magazines—the publications that have the most influence on India’s power centers—have reported widely on the RTI law itself, but have not embraced it as an investigative tool. Reporters and editors say they simply don’t trust the information released by government officials. Narendar Pani, a former senior editor for The Economic Times and now dean of interdisciplinary studies at the National Institute of Advanced Studies in Bangalore, suggested other, less noble explanations for the “patchy” use of the law. English dailies compete for upscale urban audiences that prefer feel-good, India-rising stories to articles about government corruption. Pani said another factor is that Indian reporters are culturally attuned to work through networks of informal sources, which would dry up with “a blunt-instrument approach, which is the RTI.”
The right to information act emerged out of a “people’s movement” in Rajasthan, a state in western India that borders Pakistan. The improbable crusade of impoverished peasants reframed a typically intellectual debate over good governance into a gritty struggle for survival. “The unique thing about India’s RTI is that it started with poor people, making a demand for extremely real issues,” said Aruna Roy, one of the country’s most respected social activists and the person most closely identified with the RTI movement. “It was not an academic issue at all.”
The issue was, and continues to be, official malfeasance. Billions of rupees disappear from construction and welfare programs. Civil servants and local officials do little without pocketing baksheesh. Transparency International estimates that Indians dole out a collective $4.8 billion in bribes every year for basic services, like filing a police report. In upholding the conviction of a police officer for taking a 3,500-rupee bribe, India’s Supreme Court lamented in 2006: “No facet of public activity has been left unaffected by the stink of corruption.” Hardest hit, advocates say, are the 450 million mostly rural villagers who subsist on less than $1.25 a day.