Right to Information: What has it changed in India?

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From its early origin as a mass movement in a Rajasthan village in 1996 to a countrywide struggle for a Right to Information (RTI) Act which was passed in 2005, it has led to interesting and peculiar consequences to governance and bureaucracy in India. The current and earlier debates around RTI suggests that it has meant different things to different interest groups and the larger divide is seen in the way it is used by the urban and rural sections of the Indian society. A simple approach can be to examine RTI on the following aspects –

a)      Mode of action of RTI towards facilitating accountability

b)      Consequences of the availability of a tool like RTI in the hands of the citizens

c)       Analysis of the impact of RTI on effectiveness and accountability

 Action – RTI entitles a citizen an access to information related to public works, schemes, programs and all other activities of departments of the government that are concerned with welfare and provide services to the citizens (or those that affect the citizens in any direct manner), at the state and center level. Until 2005 the citizens’ demand for information could be turned down by the respective department if they wished to. The departments or offices would typically deny information using arbitrary or vague laws like the Official Secrets Act. But with RTI citizens now have a legal right to the information that they are seeking. This is a landmark change for an average Indian citizen in the 21st century India. It was practically unheard of a citizen making a ‘demand’ of any sort in any of the public offices before this act. That they can do it has hit the Indian bureaucracies at various levels like a tornado from which the only way to recover is to yield information and lighten up so that they are not swept away from their chairs and offices.

Structurally, RTI has altered the power relation between the state and civil society. RTI vests power in an individual to make a claim on the state. Let us examine this hypothetically – A is accountable to B if A’s work effects B and is obliged to offer explanation for it when B demands to so. When the explanation does not satisfy B, he can impose sanctions on A. This is how accountability arrangement between A, who is a bureaucrat and B who is a citizen, works. Before RTI, B could not have demanded an explanation. RTI has brought a shift in the power balance between A and B. Earlier A possessed power do deny B an explanation. Now, RTI enforces a legal mechanism to strengthen B’s demand for information from A. And in cases, it brings on a sanction on A for its actions.

ConsequencesAs in the case of MKSS’ movement in a village in Rajasthan to demand information from the village level bureaucracy on a welfare scheme, we see that the village administrative officer and the block development officer had to release accounts of expenditure and status of welfare schemes in the village. RTI has effect a public watch on the working of the bureaucracy. Today, eight years since RTI Act was effected, the government offices work with a clear knowledge that their actions and their work may be called for scrutiny by any member of the public at any point of time. Such a panopticon like gaze brought about by RTI has stemmed the rampant corruption amongst the street level bureaucracy. One must note that it has only stemmed corruption and not rooted it out.

Another consequence has been the use of RTI as a tool to make planning processes of public welfare schemes inclusive. For instance, detailed project reports on large scale infrastructure projects are required to be shared with the public and public consent for the plan must be sought. This brings in an enormous amount of scrutiny and pressure on governments to ensure public interests. This, from an environment where even simple questions were seldom asked or answered is a big leap into a public sphere where citizens now have an almost retributive power to challenge bureaucracy’s inaction or corruption.  Also, collusive type of corruption in which the bureaucrats and individuals with vested interests (or contractors) would team up to siphon resources or funds, is checked by other vigilant citizens’ groups. This has had interesting consequences on caste and group dynamics in the rural areas. The urban groups have used RTI to mount pressure on the urban local bodies to deliver essential civic services and address grievances. The use of RTI among the two groups is quite a contrast and makes an interesting socio-political study.

AnalysisRTI has impacted working of the government offices across the hierarchy – from lower to higher levels in varying but significant degree. On accountability both in rural and urban areas interesting uses of RTI have emerged. These suggest that RTI has been successful in creating the necessary pressure on the government in making it answerable to the citizens. At village level most of the public works information – especially financial information is displayed at the site or in panchayat offices. This has improved the performance of public schemes and to the least has made people aware that such a scheme was sanctioned for their village in the first place.

In cities citizen action groups have been successful in conduction public audits and question spending decisions of the public offices. Pension, healthcare and similar services have been made to perform better and without petty corruption (or at least reduced) by widespread use of RTI by urban middle class.

However, on effectiveness and efficiency of governments – state and center, RTI has had a lesser impact. This is due to the fact that effective government is not influenced by information pressure alone. For government to be effective it also needs to have institutional capacity and resources to deliver on the performance expectation. In addition to this, as a response to mounting pressure from RTI corruption has shifted from lower levels to higher ones such that it now affects government performance at a systemic level. For instance auction of natural resources – oil and natural gas exploration blocks, mining or telecom spectrum allocation have all seen scams which were led by highest level of bureaucracy and political system. Government effectivity has seen lesser impact by RTI than accountability.

RTI’s impact has been limited and highly context specific. In the spaces that it is designed to operate, it has performed fairly well, as evidence of RTI application figures and RTI based activism suggests. For the many problems that affect government performance in India like corruption, clientelism, red tape and time consuming procedures, RTI cannot be and must not be seen as a panacea. It is an end in itself. 

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Absurdity of fasting as activism (or fancier still – social intervention)

Here is a crude joke which sums up whats happening at this place I attend.

An ageing philanthropist, a promising young mountaineer and an activist are flying in a small plane. Half way in their journey the plane develops a snag. The pilot declares that the plane will crash soon, grabs a parachute and jumps off the plane. The three men are horrified at this and look for parachutes. The activist manages to grab one in the scramble (experienced as he was in stuff like this. Hadn’t he managed to break the security cordon and ripped off the state flag last time?) and jumps off.

Now, the philanthropist and the young mountaineer remain. Philanthropist says to the other,

“Son, as you see I am much older than you are and have seen many glorious seasons in my life and lived it well. I do not regret dying at this age. You have a long life ahead of you. Please take the remaining parachute and save your life.”

The two of them are in a strange but poised silence.The young man then figures things out and replies,

“Sir, we need not worry. The activist in his haste has jumped off with my backpack. There are two parachutes here and we both will make it to the ground safely. Come. Let us not delay.”

This has much to do with my irritation at the string of mails that are urging people to not eat (as in fast) at least one meal of the day and instead consider sending the food over to the people whose homes (considered slum) were recently demolished by the city’s municipal corporation. More on that here. There is an understanding that a meal shifted from one set of people to the other is likely to help the situation in some manner. If one argues on the morality, humanitarian and other such ethical-moral-spiritual concerns then I will sure have to ask him to cut the crap and on further insistence to shut the f*** up.

Why does it escape these young folks who are driven by a concern to help the distressed people that a meal once or twice a day really doesn’t matter. The significant bandwidth they spend on organizing the logistics of this food support program (and mind you just as a one off thing) takes more effort and resources than the help or impact that it is likely to have. In anyway, these people are able bodied men and women who are generally capable of managing their food. So, why such an ill thought idea to help is something I am trying to understand.

The fiery zeal of “helping” and “working” for a “cause” is probably burning their thinking as well. Why not take some time to figure out what the people rendered homeless might require at the moment. It is often seen that they value resource support, legal representation and other help of similar nature more than their immediate food and clothing, unless it is a natural disaster or calamity including difficult weather.

Taking a more broad sweep, I have often felt that this is what is wrong with the Indian variety of activism – poorly thought ideas of intervention (poorly understood as well) and the haste to run and do something. The activists would be quick to retort “but we do grab attention and bring the issue to focus”. I say that is not all and that is not even the starting point. More on that later. At the moment, it is much about venting out my exasperation at this variety which sits all around me and spams my mailbox with such bleeding heart mails asking me to give up food.