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.
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.