New tool to fight red tape, corruption

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

Bhaskar Prabhu is neither a powerful bureaucrat, nor an influential politician. Yet this civilian activist, working to clear a path for pedestrians in the Dadar area of central Bombay, has stopped vendors with unlicensed stalls from blocking public streets and walkways.

All he had to do was to use the Maharashtra Right to Information Act to demand a list of licensed stalls from the civic authorities. As soon as the list was furnished to him, he took the authorities head-on and demanded action against stalls that weren't on the list. Now illegal stalls are routinely cleared out by civil authorities, handing back Dadar's footpaths and sidewalks to the walking public.

"It would've been unthinkable to expect authorities to take such swift action if it weren't for this act," Mr. Prabhu says.

A similar version of this act called the Right to Information (RTI) Act came into force nationwide last month, placing India among 55 other countries to have "freedom of information" legislation. In a country where public information has always been guarded behind an iron veil of secrecy, RTI is the most important legislation since independence, say activists, because it can lead to transparency and accountability in governance.

"For the first time since India's independence from the British, ordinary people have the right to scrutinize performance of public officials and hold them answerable for their actions that they professedly take on behalf of people. This is the most powerful right ordinary Indians have at their disposal after the right to vote," says Prabhu.

Under the act, ordinary citizens can access records, documents, e-mails, circulars, and any other information held by public authority - including central and state governments, local bodies, and nongovernmental organizations. This information is to be provided free of cost for those living below the poverty line, and with a nominal fee for others.

Weapon against corruption

Many say that this legislation could prove to be the best antidote to corruption - endemic in a country that ranks 88th among 158 countries, according to the latest Transparency International Report.

In September, for example, activists used the Maharashtra state law to unearth gross irregularities in the country's Employment Guarantee Scheme in the Satara district of Maharashtra. As they procured employment records through the information act, they found that officials were siphoning off funds meant for the poor.

"RTI is a new pillar of our democracy," says Shailesh Gandhi, an RTI activist. "Corruption of this kind is routine in India, and is often brushed under the carpet. RTI is effective in exposing it."

The act is also being used to fight the indifference and petulance found within the ranks of India's vast bureaucracy. Shailesh Gandhi remembers how a poor man got his water connection in his home in Bombay by using RTI. As the municipal authorities wriggled out of responsibility by blaming the traffic department for not letting them dig a road to provide a connection, the man, Mr. Gandhi says, used RTI to inquire if that were the case. "It turned out the traffic department had no problem with it, and so the man had to be given a water connection," Gandhi says.

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

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.

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