India Makes Remarkable Strides Towards a More Perfect Democracy

DELHI, India -- For 24 years the sewer pipelines laid out in Sundar Nagri, a slum area in eastern Delhi, remained a simple reminder of what the neighborhood almost had.

Though installed by the government in 1984, the sewer piping had been left incomplete, set in place but still waiting to be connected to residents' houses. Families instead relied on government toilets -- one or two per block of five hundred people -- where rape and violence were not uncommon and complaints made to officials over the years went ignored. When Santosh Koli approached Delhi Jal Board -- the government agency responsible for water supply and sewage -- with a Right to Information (RTI) application, however, she was sat down and offered tea.

"I had gone in asking to inspect their records relating to sewers in Sundar Nagri," said Santosh, a resident of the area. "Before I would have been cursed at and kicked out, but this time they sat me down, sometimes giving me water, sometimes tea." After two hours, an official came and explained that he did not have any files on the sewage system. But the RTI application had seeped deep.

"They realized that if this application got to top officers, it could become a real hassle," Santosh said, explaining that local government projects are often abandoned once an area's funds make their way to officials' pockets instead. This time, however, workers arrived in Sundar Nagri a few months after her visit, going door-to-door through the village to connect each house to the sewage pipes -- a work-order residents had been awaiting over 20 years. "With a 10 rupee fee for RTI it was fixed within two months," Santosh said.

Meet the revolution called RTI. The three letters, referring to the Right to Information Act, have become in India both a symbol of and tool for seizing information from the clutches of bureaucratic secrecy and empowering the citizens who have traditionally suffered at the short-end of that stick.

Enacted nationwide in October 2005, the Right to Information Act grants citizens access to information under the control of public authorities and held in any form, whether as documents, emails, opinions, contracts, or logbooks. Seen as offering the transparency and accountability central to a working democracy, freedom to information legislation exists in over 65 countries, all of which grant some form of access to government documents by law. The U.S. equivalent, the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), has been a key tool for journalists and government watchdogs since 1966 and most recently shed light on the Bush administration's interrogation memorandum.

In India, use of RTI has hit close and hard, piercing to the core of the citizen-government relationship and leaving it forever altered. Though fairly basic in terms of legislation, RTI has had a uniquely transformative impact, sending far-reaching ripples and energizing citizens all across the country.

As in the U.S., the law is used both within government and by its watchdogs to ensure public accountability. But of the two million plus requests filed in India so far, a majority concern the specific and the everyday, insistent attempts to expose -- and then counter -- the often arbitrary decision-making and widespread corruption that frustrate the lives of those traditionally too powerless to fight it.

Another RTI application filed by Santosh exposed seven million rupees worth of road repair work that had been completed on paper, yet which the crumbling streets of Sundar Nagri had never received. Chandarbhavan, a 38-year-old machine operator from east Delhi, had his life savings of 65,000 rupees wiped out from a public bank account after officials faked his signature and withdrew the money on his behalf. An RTI application asking to see the forged documents prompted the money's return.

Filing an RTI application is simple, requiring that one specify the desired information and enclose a small application fee, which is usually around the equivalent of 20 cents and is waived for below-poverty-line (BPL) citizens. Government officials must strictly respond to the application within 30 days, either by providing the required information or explaining the grounds for refusing it. Straightforward and practical, the law stands as an emblem and notable first step for a deeper movement, an ongoing project to give meaning to self-rule in a country whose electorate soars past 700 million and where over 40 percent of the population lives on less than $1.25 a day.

Users of the Act span regions, occupations, education levels, social profiles, and age. A report published last July revealed that of the two million RTI applications filed through April 2008, 40 percent of urban applicants and 60 percent of the rural were non-graduates, while 15 percent of the urban and 30 percent of the rural applicants fell below the poverty line.

Citizens may appeal any denials, and officials found to be unduly withholding information are fined. Certain information is exempted from disclosure, but in all cases the onus to provide justification for a denial falls on the public authority.

Shifting currents

One Wednesday morning in July, a group of 25 women met in a small building in Malviya Nagar, an area in south Delhi. Sitting on the floor and teeming out of the room, the women had gathered for a weekly meeting held by Satark Nagrik Sangathan (SNS), an advocacy group that helps citizens file RTI applications. Mostly uneducated and from the surrounding slum clusters, the women at the Soochna Ghar (Information Center) were discussing the water shortage facing an adjacent camp and how RTI could help.

Ashok Kumar, the SNS member leading the meeting, asked the women if they knew about the Act. One woman piped up, "You use it to file an RTI and ask, 'Why isn't my work being done?'"

Ashok nodded, explaining that every time the women bought soap or matches, they paid a sales tax to the government, which was then responsible for providing public services. "Education, health, cleaning the streets, ration, water -- on all of it, government spends our money," he said. "But we also have obligations, we need to keep an eye on what's happening and ask government for answers. They've given us this right -- soochna ka adikhar -- to question them."

For those whose entire notion of government has been long shaped by local authorities who have routinely and systematically disfavored them, the idea that citizens are entitled to rights and services -- that public officials might ever owe them -- strikes as unfamiliar and, even quixotic. Indeed, the relationship set out by the basic tenet of democracy, where citizens hold sovereignty, has remained so removed from the day-to-day experience of most Indians that an understanding of public servants as just that has remained foreign -- an affliction hardly unique to Indian democracy, yet more pronounced.

But, according to social activists, government officials, and citizens, that understanding is now slowly but insistently rising to the surface of Indian society. "This Act has contributed to the gradual infiltration of the culture of democracy in the minds of the people of this country," said Prashant Bhushan, a prominent civil liberties lawyer in Delhi. "The Act helps reinforce the message that the people are the real sovereigns, and that therefore they have the rights. It has made people conscious of those rights, which they were not conscious of earlier."

Indeed, for many citizens the law marks the first time the government has opened up a path for them to practically and effectively participate in self-rule. While national elections enjoy relatively healthy turnouts all across the massively complex Indian demographic (58.4 percent of the electorate voted in the 2009 national elections), a certain resignation and deep skepticism lingers regarding the responsiveness of government to its citizens. An off-handed comment from an auto-rickshaw driver in Delhi -- "Nothing happens, they're all thieves" -- hinted at a cynicism among Indians regarding their government that is not uncommon.

Now armed with a tool whose range extends both far and deep, citizens are learning to harness the weapon recently handed to them, injecting transparency into a system long-kept shrouded. Shekhar Singh, an academic and social activist involved in the RTI movement, described how the Act adds new direction to a power-flow that has traditionally only run one way. "Usually laws are for the government to control the people, but this law turns that all around: it's for the people to evaluate government," he said. "That's no small change."

The change trickling into the lives of those filing applications is no small one either. In one of the most well-known RTI cases, people around the country have used the Act to expose and correct the notoriously corrupt Public Distribution System (PDS), a government scheme created to provide BPL citizens with rice, wheat, and sugar at subsidized rates. For years, however, ration shopkeepers withdrew the subsidized supplies and instead illegally sold them at higher prices, turning BPL citizens away on the pretext that the government wasn't supplying them. Since filing RTI requests to see shopkeepers' stock and sale registers, tens of thousands of families have started collecting their due share of rations.

"Compared to all the acts passed in the last 60 years, none has touched as many lives in as short a time period as this one," said M. M. Ansari, a Central Information Commissioner (CIC) for Delhi.

Indeed, what's most striking is the swiftness and depth with which the formal law -- a 23-page document -- has translated into addressing the actual struggles of so many. The sheer simplicity of the tool (a question on a piece of paper) understood alongside its deeper impact (the assertion of self-rule) seems almost incongruous. That the fundamentals of democratic expression have emerged through a single piece of legislation is both rare and remarkable, a feat that even the most optimistic activists didn't foresee.

Aruna Roy, a renowned social and political activist and leader of the movement, noted that what seems like mere access to records has sparked a more far-reaching process. "By asking a question, you've started direct intervention and an engagement with governance, demanding not only your own small bit of wheat or grain, but you've started a whole chain of activities around that," said Roy, who was awarded the Ramon Magsaysay Award, often considered Asia's Nobel Prize, for her work. "Those activities impact you and the people around you and therefore become an issue of common concern. That is the amazing thing about this."

Tracing the roots

Conversations with activists and academics underscore that it is the movement's origins that have colored its social reach so positively, that the simplicity and practicality of RTI can indeed be traced back to its beginnings. The movement had its roots in the rural villages of central Rajasthan with the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (Workers'-Farmers' Unity Union), a grassroots people's organization started by four social activists in 1990, one of whom was Roy. Deciding to live like the people they strove to serve, the activists had moved to a modest hut in Dev Dungri and begun subsisting on the minimum wage at the time, 15 rupees a day. Though broadly committed to helping the rural poor, the activists were intent on allowing the local issues to define and shape movements, Roy explained.

Drawing peasants and workers, MKSS soon began demanding copies of the local government's financial records. It organized public hearings, where residents reviewed the work of their village bodies through collective testimonies. Though the hearings were remarkably effective at fighting local-level corruption, disclosure of records was difficult to come by. The Official Secrets Act of 1923, a colonial legacy of the British, protected government documents as state secrets, and officials' opposition to disclosure ran deep, alerting the MKSS to the need for legal entitlement to information.

A movement for the right to information began soon after in 1994, with villagers holding regular demonstrations that would often last weeks in attempts to exert pressure on state officials. A three-year long campaign finally secured certain amendments at the local-level in 1997, and in 2000 the state legislature passed the Rajasthan State Right to Information Act. By then, however, the campaign had ignited a much wider movement, rousing efforts around the country for a national law, which finally came in 2005 -- 11 years after the first demands for change.

"The wonderful thing about the process was that it was so democratic -- it really involved multiple voices, a very large group of people," said Roy, attributing the practicality of RTI to its plural and populist roots. "No one is the father or the mother or the grandmother or grandfather of RTI. It's just that it's the people's work."

That the push for a democratic tool was in itself so democratic only mirrors the MKSS's early commitment to embodying the very participatory spirit it sought to bring to governance. The approach encapsulates the essence of satyagraha, Gandhi's philosophy of nonviolent resistance, which saw means and ends as inseparable. "They say, 'means are, after all, means'. I would say, 'means are, after all, everything,'" Gandhi famously wrote. "As the means so the end..."

Activists note that the independence movement led by Gandhi still casts a long shadow on the country, having cultivated an earlier energy and agitating spirit from which the RTI movement reaps.

"The sheer depth of the national independence movement cannot be over-exaggerated," said Yogendra Yadav, co-director of the Lokniti Institute for Comparative Democracy and senior fellow at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies. "By the time the British left, Indian society was energized for the long-term. The freedom movement ended up forging tools, establishing conventions, creating institutions which far outlive the freedom movement and the British," he said. "What the RTI people are trying to do is very much drawn from that struggle."

The Act's origins outside of government and the ground-level fight for its support have also cultivated a sense of ownership among citizens that is rare. "The best thing is that everybody thinks the law is theirs," Roy said. When the government proposed a series of amendments to the Act in 2006 that would have significantly weakened its power, people were enraged. "I remember a conversation with a worker in Jaipur who said, 'Only 60 years on has a law been made for us, that allows us to put a penalty on the government officials who don't do any work. Now they're saying they'll take this away from us? What do they mean? We're not going to let them take it away,'" Roy recounted. "It's this kind of ownership that is something that we had dreamed of but didn't know if it would be possible."

Signs of resistance

Tilting the balance of power, however slightly, has not been without its resistors. For those who have enjoyed decades of unchecked authority, the inspecting light of RTI strikes harshly. When asked about the constraints faced in exercising their right to information, over 40 percent of rural respondents cited threats and harassment from officials, while 15 percent of urban citizens answered similarly. The recent report also discovered a strong threat perception among villagers, who were reluctant to file applications even when requested to do so by a research team. Another 30 percent reported being actively discouraged from filing by government officials.

For some, the warnings have gone beyond threats. While seeking records from the ration shops in her town, Santosh was attacked twice by ration shopkeepers and once knifed at the throat, a scar the diminutive 4'10" resident still wears. "They used to say, 'Just finish off one or two of them and they'll themselves stop asking about all this,'" she said.

Resistance has come in more official guises, too, most notably as a series of amendments in 2006 that proposed to exclude file notations from disclosure. Referring to note sheets where officials comment on and approve opinions, file notations reflect the factors that shape government decisions and offer a transparent view into the decision-making process.

Public outrage at the proposed amendments quickly spurred a nationwide campaign entitled "Save the RTI Act," and an early round of referendum votes showed 98.7 percent of people opposed the changes, which were publicly described as "damaging the soul" of the law. Sustained counter-efforts and widespread media coverage, as well as additional opposition from leftist party leaders, pressured the government into dropping the amendments, a move hailed as a decisive victory for RTI.

Beyond formal challenges to the law, too, lies an ingrained attitudinal resistance that seeps the RTI process. While the Act overrides the Official Secrets Act of 1923, the culture of secrecy endemic to all bureaucracies has been slower to erode. Trained in an atmosphere that assumed information as classified, government employees are having to adjust to an openness unfamiliar and, for some, uncomfortable.

Moreso than active resistance, conversations with civil servants reveal a certain frustration with RTI, the sense that it distracts their work, or is an external hassle to governance rather than a component integral to it. For many, it marks an end to the perks and privileges that have long-accompanied positions in government, from the ability to bypass formal processes or expedite requests to win job appointments for friends and family. "Nothing has seeped their consciousnesses like the RTI," Singh said, referring to government employees. "How many of them appreciate it for what it is is another question, but the impact is certainly there."

Part of that impact includes a narrowing of what can sometimes seem like a chasmic gap between the rulers and those ruled, or, more specifically, between government officials and the economically disadvantaged whose powerless status has won them little save political marginalization. Singh explained that the sense of distance is partly residual of British colonialism, which systematically cultivated it as a means of establishing authority.

"The British officers were very small in numbers and they were told that the only way you can handle these huge populations is by creating a sense of awe," Singh said, explaining that the desire for power was seen in the extravagance with which the British imperialists lived, a lavishness that to some extent still exists in governance today.

That a tool for public accountability and transparency has come 50 years after the country formally became a democratic state similarly speaks to its colonial past. Yadav noted that while democratic structures of governance were adopted, there has been inadequate attention given to the societal pre-requisites and background that those structures need in order to function effectively.

"As a postcolonial society, you have an administrative system where the protocols of accountability have not been built," Yadav said. "The system has been borrowed from the outside, has been bodily lifted, without any attempt to make it do what it was meant to do."

Giving meaning to self-rule

Numerous problems still plague the RTI process. Poor record-keeping, inadequate resources, and an inability to handle rising applications are the most significant issues. Beyond these growing pains, however, we see a powerful corrective force at play, a successful attempt to make the democratic system "do what it was meant to do." Indeed, that an effectively disenfranchised and disempowered segment of the population now holds leverage over the most powerful -- who are also, to some extent, responsible for that very disenfranchisement and disempowerment -- is remarkable, signifying a pivotal shift in the relation between those connected to power and those subjected to it.

Perhaps fitting for a country where everything is just of a bigger scale, the single law is making democracy meaningful for the vast majority that has always been powerless. In their simple way, it is the traditionally marginalized that are actualizing self-rule, demanding public accountability and the rights and services they have mostly only formally enjoyed -- a process set in motion by a 23-page document first drafted by a group of activists in Singh's living room.

Activists are quick to temper their enthusiasm by noting the long road that still lies ahead in countering the political injustices suffered by masses. But most note that RTI is significant precisely because it has established a basic platform from which to make these efforts effective. "It's like saying you have to be healthy to do anything," Roy explained. "So you can dismiss this as a very small step, but it's the very basis on which we exist. It's the basis for health, a healthy polity."

Beyond the individual applications filed and information received, the RTI movement has roused latent energies and frustrations into tangible political action. More and more citizens are taking ownership of the political process, organizing public hearings of officials accused of wrongdoing, or staging sit-ins when officials refuse to attend to them. RTI has directed efforts back to challenging a political status quo that has too easily ignored, and sometimes even perpetuated, the everyday struggles of countless people.

Most pointedly, the law and the movement behind it have renewed the question of what practicing democracy actually means and where the responsibility for its genuine practice falls. Extending beyond the concerns that initially drove the legislation, the right to ask a question is triggering countless other questions, igniting a self-propelling process that appears just to be beginning.

This article is based on research conducted while the author was on a journalism fellowship in Delhi, India during July and August 2009. She is deeply thankful to Dr. S. Y. Quraishi.