Their ranks include the feisty people of the Pali District in central Rajasthan. During the early 1990s, the region suffered through severe droughts. To help stave off famine, the government opened a number of small construction projects so the villagers could earn money to buy food. But when villagers had completed their work and showed up to collect their pay, they were shortchanged. The town official who controlled the money claimed the workers didn’t log nearly as many hours as they thought. The villagers demanded to see the timesheets, or “muster rolls.” The official refused, saying the rolls were confidential government documents under the 1923 Official Secrets Act, an anti-espionage measure left over from British rule.
As it happened, the irate villagers were members of Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan, or the Workers-Farmers Unity Union, which Nikhil Dey and Aruna Roy started in 1990. A small, severe-looking woman, Roy knew the bureaucratic game, having served in the most elite group of civil servants, the Indian Administrative Service, before quitting in 1975 over what she termed its “decadent colonial spirit.” She moved to Rajasthan to work directly with the poor. When the grievances over the famine work first bubbled up, the union staged hunger strikes but nothing happened. Let them die, local officials said. That’s when Roy and her compatriots seized on access to information as a way of fighting back. They convinced one local official to let them copy muster rolls, including related bills and vouchers for the construction projects. Insiders leaked other records. Then they went from village to village, confirming the information.
What they found was straight out of Chicago ward politics. There were dead people on the rolls, as well as names of villagers who had moved away—all “ghost” employees who never worked a day on the projects. Bills showed evidence of other fraud: the “purchase” of new stones when workers had used old ones from a torn-down building.
In December 1994, Roy and her cohorts convened a public hearing to discuss the findings. More than a thousand villagers, gnarled old men in turbans and women in colorful ankle-length ghaghras, sat under the shade of a borrowed parachute. With town chiefs looking on from a distance, peasants paraded to the mike to testify to the rip-off. After two years and two highly publicized sit-down strikes, Rajasthan officials grudgingly agreed to open all village records to inspection and photocopying. The union’s campaign became a phenomenon, with several village officials promising to pay back pilfered funds. Former Prime Minister V. P. Singh showed up at a subsequent hearing and the Brahmins of the national press offered to help. The burgeoning movement also prompted Rajasthan and eight other states to pass right-to-information laws, which spurred other transparency campaigns.
In conjunction with the Press Council of India, Roy and another union co-founder, Shekhar Singh, lobbied Parliament for a national law. The first attempt got enough votes to pass in 2002, but was never enacted due to a technicality. A second bill soon picked up a powerful ally in Sonia Gandhi, the president of the National Congress Party, who fashioned a coalition government after the 2004 elections. The coalition government, called the United Progressive Alliance, committed itself to passing a strong information law and the next year Gandhi pushed it through Parliament.
The information commissions were established to keep requests from getting bottled up in hostile bureaucracies. But as the number of requests mushrooms, the commissions at the federal level and in the larger states have themselves become a bottleneck. The Central Information Commission in New Delhi, for instance, is trying to dig out from nearly nine thousand appeals and the end may not be in sight. If things don’t change in a year or two, warns Wajahat Habibullah, the head of the commission, the whole system may collapse.
The law’s supporters vow to safeguard it, claiming the glut of appeals will subside once agencies have fully embraced the act. Indeed, they gained added influence when one of their own—Shailesh Gandhi, an RTI activist from Mumbai with eight hundred requests under his belt—was chosen to become the new federal information commissioner. He started hearing appeals in mid-September. Activists are also laying plans with federal authorities to establish a national RTI hotline that will allow citizens to place and pay for their requests via cell phone.