Thursday, October 26, 2006

The right to information

I was fortunate to meet and chat with Arvind Kerjriwal yesterday (he is in the USA currently, visiting a number of cities, supported by various organizations like the IIT foundations and alumni associations, Asha, AID etc). Arvind, a now retired IAS officer, founded the exemplary organization Parivartan, and has tirelessly campaigned for the Right to information (RTI) act. In recognition of his work, he was awarded the Ramon Magasaysay award this year.

The RTI act has been in the news recently. But, though I had heard a lot about it (both from the news as well as from organizations I knew were using it well), it was hard for me to imagine how powerful a tool it really could be, until my meeting with Arvind yesterday. So in this post, I though I’d outline what I had learnt from him.

I was surprised to learn that the Right to Information was declared a fundamental right in 1976 by the Supreme Court, as embedded within the right to freedom of speech. That was 30 years ago. But till now, there hasn’t been any mechanism or machinery by which that right could be exerted. But the whole process gathered momentum in 1990, spearheaded by Aruna Roy. Surprisingly, (I learnt from Arvind) this act may never have come to light but for the strong support of an unlikely person, Sonia Gandhi (I still know little about her, but my own respect for her has increased thanks to his one act). And here is what the law provides. It gives all citizens in India five rights:
1) The right to ask any questions about the functioning of any government body or employee
2) The right to inspect any public document
3) The right to photocopies of any document
4) The right to inspect any public work (eg. to inspect any road work for example)
5) To ask for samples of materials used

All this (unless it falls under areas of national interest or security). Still, these are just words. How can this be implemented?

The process is surprisingly simple. All you have to do is petition the public information officier of the government office concerned. If (s)he doesn’t respond in 30 days, that person will be penalized Rs. 250 per day (and still has to respond). A second petition is made to his/her immediate boss, who has to respond within 30 days (the same rules apply). If not, the file is sent to the Information Officer (there is about one per state) who has to by law take action, and penalize the negligent officer. A remarkably efficient process.

But does this work, in the corrupt, bureaucratic system in India? Apparently it does. I’ll just give two of the many examples Arvind talked about (there are many more that you can find here). The first one was of a daily wage laborer in Delhi, Nannu. He had lost his ration card, the card that entitles India’s poorest to subsidized food every month from government supplied provision stores. Now, according to law, a person’s lost card should be replaced in 10 days. Nannu was made to run from pillar to post for some 4 months. He had no money with which to bribe officials. Finally, Parivartan helped him file an RTI petition. In that he asked what progress was made on his replacement card daily, when he would get his card, and what happened to the officers in charge of his card. Within days, the official came to meet Nannu personally, offered him tea, asked him to withdraw his petition, and gave him the ration card.

It must be remembered that a bureaucrat or government official’s power lies in secrecy. And they are terrified of any negligence being made official, or coming out in the open. So, they feel tremendously threatened by the RTI act, since they have the most to lose.

Arvind gave numerous other examples of individual citizens benefiting. However, this RTI is also a powerful tool to expose major policy decisions. He gave an example of a recent effort in Delhi to privatize water supply in the city. Apparently, this was a proposed World Bank funded effort. The proposal was on since the mid nineties in complete secrecy. However, some news leaked out in to the press, and Parivartan, as concerned citizens (who knew nothing about water, but just wanted to know what was going on) filed an RTI petition asking for the files on this process. At first there was a lot of resistance, but finally the files were made public, and the story was shocking. Apparently, the World Bank was arm twisting and almost dictating policy to the government. The process of privatization (or any government work) takes place with bids by bidding companies. There is a two layered process, where first in this case the top six companies would be selected, and then in the second round, the best among them would be selected. Here, in the first round, Pricewaterhouse-Coopers, the well known consulting firm, had a bid that came in tenth. By law, they should have been eliminated. But the world bank insisted that PWC be considered. At first the government protested, but with continuous pressure relented, and declared PWC to be selected in the top six by declaring it to be an Indian company! In the next round, again PWC fared badly, with only a 67% score, and a terrible proposal. Again the world bank pressurized the government (by asking it to remove the people who evaluated the proposal), and forced the government to declare the PWC bid as the winner. Again, the government capitulated to pressure. It wasn’t just this, but the entire process of water privatization in this proposal was rather absurd, and would have affected millions of people adversely. Bowing to public pressure (after the dealings were revealed due to the RTI petition), the government scrapped the project completely.

Clearly, this Right to Information act could be the most powerful tool we have ever had in almost 60 years of independence, and the one chance to correct corruption and inefficiency in government.

But all is not well. Something this powerful for the people will by default have opposition by those who stand to lose. And this would be both the bureaucrats that run the country (both in the civil services as well as regular government offices) as well as politicians. So, there are concerted efforts by both the government and the bureaucrats to kill the bill. There are amendments being proposed that will in effect kill the bill. To make things worse, presently all the current Information Officers appointed are former bureaucrats. The come from within the system, and hate every aspect of the bill (would a former bureaucrat punish one of his old buddies who has failed in his/her duties?). This is in spite of the fact that the Information Officer can be any “eminent citizen”. The present chief information officer is on record saying he believes in “ahinsa”, and will not prosecute negligent officers! Politicians and others involved in rackets like siphoning off money or food from ration stores to sell in the black market hate the RTI. It could kill their own golden egg laying geese. So, there is every chance that this bill might be co-opted in to the vast bureaucracy that exists in the Indian system.

And it is our duty to see that it doesn’t happen. So, make some noise, petition the president or prime minister or the leader of the opposition. Make sure that the bill survives in practice. If it does, and it functions for five years or so, gaining visibility, it will become political suicide for any party to remove it. And it will be the one tool we have never had in all these years to fight corruption and strive for transparent, efficient governance.

(All this reminds me that it is time to revisit my complete Yes minister and Yes prime minister collections).


apu said...

Hi Sunil - Good to see you back ! The RTI is a good step, but details on implementation are still hazy. Fees for e.g. vary from state to state, nor is it very clear from the websites how e.g. to apply. Perhaps some of the people working in this field could bring out a step-by-step guide on how to go about this for the average citizen

greatbong said...

Thanks for the informative post Sunil. Much new things learned.

greatbong said...

Thanks for the informative post Sunil. Much new things learned.

Sunil said...

Apu....yes, it will take some time to settle down, and all details be streamlined. The best resource currently is here. But all you need to do is for any govt office, go to the public relations officier (there is one for each office), and ask to file an RTI petition, thats it. It typically costs Rs 10 for a petition.

Arnab.....more than welcome. Spread the word.

Anonymous said...

There was a very recent attempt by bureaucrats to exempt most documents from the RTI which got killed
thanks to Mrs Gandhi and a public fast in protest against the attempt by Anna Hazare. I agree with you that this is an extremely important legislation. Both Aruna Roy and Arvind Kejriwal really deserve the credit they are getting for pushing on this matter. Here are a couple of websites which are of value:

Sunil said...

vkrishna.....thanks for those links, they are very informative as well.

Anonymous said...

what if the info supplied is false??

Anonymous said...

my email id i want to know if my co-oprative housing society hides some info from me can i ask for that on RTI basis to chairman of soc or who do i wright to?
pls some one help