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.
During the October gathering of activists, Roy, Dey, and thirty others gave an update on the nationwide study they are conducting of the RTI law’s impact. As part of the study, underwritten in part by $250,000 from the Google Foundation, the activists have compiled a database of case studies, some six thousand accounts of how the act has struck a small blow for poor farmers and other underdogs. The cumulative effect, Dey says, is a “class-action kind of thing” that he believes will shift India from an electoral to a participatory democracy. “You can’t say it’s tangible. It’s a change of culture,” he says. “It’s governance being turned around.”
The media are turning around as well, albeit slowly. English-language newspapers now regularly publish stories brought to them by RTI activists. Some have broken bite-sized exclusives stemming from their own requests. One Bangalore tabloid has carved out an RTI mini-beat. In November, Delhi’s largest television station launched a federal probe with its report—based on information obtained under the RTI law—that newborn babies were dying at a disturbingly high rate at a leading city hospital due to unsanitary conditions there. Within other newsrooms, editors and reporters accustomed to India’s smash-and-grab style of journalism openly acknowledge they need to find a way to harness the landmark law. “To be very frank, we have not understood the power of the Right to Information Act yet,” says Saikat Datta, an investigative reporter for the weekly newsmagazine Outlook, about the journalistic community. “We just haven’t figured out how powerful this tool is and what it can achieve.”