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New tool to fight red tape, corruption

India's freedom of information act is allowing ordinary citizens to clear streets and fight graft.

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The new legislation, however, does include some key caveats. Information related to security, strategic, scientific, or economic interests are strictly off limits for citizens.

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The act is also not enforced in the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir, where activists claim human rights violations by security forces are high.

Stonewalling from officialdom

And in some parts of India, red tape can make getting information out an enervating exercise.

"The system still isn't completely in place," says Kavita Srivastava from People's Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) in Jaipur. Her colleague, Ravi Prakash, has experienced resistance from public information officers (PIOs) appointed to disseminate information. "Getting information is still cumbersome. We're often made to run from one PIO to another," he says.

Activists say the move to appoint serving or retired bureaucrats as information commissioners defeats the purpose of the new law, as they have a tendency to hold or delay the dissemination of information. Bureaucrats in September blanched at having government office memoranda known as file notings accessible to the public. File notings track the responses of different departments and officials, and identify who did what when, and why.

India's Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, too, is against the idea of including file notings within the purview of the RTI. "Bureaucrats need autonomy to make decisions in private," he said last month.

But as activists point out, file notings fall squarely under the information law, and blocking access would be illegal.

"Bureaucrats argue that if file notings are disclosed, then officers will not express their opinions freely and honestly. Honestly that's rubbish. The real effort is to shield those who tend to write notes that are otherwise wrong or illegal," says Shekhar Singh of the National Campaign for People's Right to Information.

Suresh Joshi, the Information Commissioner in Bombay, assures file notings will be disclosed if demanded, and there will be a check on information officers who try to shield information.

What should keep RTI effective, he says, is the stringent penalty that can be imposed on information officers for unjustifiably holding information - about $5.50 per day up to a maximum limit of nearly $550. PIOs are also bound by the act to collect and deliver information within 30 calendar days. For information related to life and liberation, it must be handed out within 48 hours.

While the government has placed advertisements in national newspapers to educate citizens about the new law, Mr. Joshi is concerned that there isn't enough awareness in all sections of the country.

"People from rural India especially don't know much about the act," he says. "Someone called me the other day to find out if I could find him a suitable bride," he laughs.