Prying Open India’s Vast Bureaucracy

Prying Open India’s Vast Bureaucracy

Letter from India, The International Herald Tribune


PONDICHERRY, India — P.M.L. Kalayansundaram calls himself a human rights worker. He runs an organization that provides a variety of services to villagers in this area — legal aid, financial assistance to help them organize marriage and death ceremonies, and free refrigerated coffin boxes that they would otherwise have to procure at exorbitant rates from private merchants.

On a recent afternoon, he told me that he had been determined from a young age to do social work. He remembered being harassed by the traffic police as a boy. Though just 14 years old, he felt even then that government was supposed to work for people, not against them. He was determined to increase the responsiveness of local officials.

Recently, Mr. Kalayansundaram has been making use of a new tool in his efforts to improve governance. He has been filing a growing number of requests for information under India’s Right to Information Act.

The act, passed by Parliament five years ago this week, aimed to introduce greater transparency in governance. It requires all authorities to appoint public information officers and to respond to requests for information within 30 days.

When the act, modeled on similar freedom of information laws in other countries, was first passed, many were doubtful that it would prove effective. Skeptics predicted that officials would find a way around it. Officials themselves worried that they would be swamped by trivial and vindictive requests that would dilute the original purpose of the law.

It is true that the implementation of the act has been uneven at times. But half a decade after its passage, it is generally acknowledged as landmark legislation that is changing the relationship between citizens and their representatives; and that has the potential to transform governance in India.

The experience of men like Mr. Kalayansundaram suggests just how that potential could be achieved slowly, information request by information request. Sitting on a lawn under the hot sun, he told me of the various ways in which he had used the act, and of the small but significant changes that had resulted.

He told me, for instance, of the information request he had made that revealed excessive spending by local officials on fuel and office snacks. When he publicized the information in newspapers, the expenses came down.

He told me, too, about an information request he made that revealed that some politicians were paying rent for houses in their or their relatives’ names. This practice, too, had diminished.

One of his greatest successes came recently, when he used the act to help solve a homicide case that had lain dormant for months. Based on information Mr. Kalayansundaram received through an information request, the police were able to identify a suspect.

Mr. Kalayansundaram emphasized that his efforts have not always gone smoothly. He talked of recalcitrant officials who held up requests for information and of the death threats he had received. Some opponents had put up posters around his house questioning his sources of income and accusing him of illegal activity.

Still, his overall sense was that the law was improving governance. “All the officials are scared of R.T.I. now,” he said, speaking of the information act. “They move more quickly. If they don’t answer within 30 days, they know they can be suspended.”

One of the chief benefits of the law, Mr. Kalayansundaram said, is that it confers something of an administrative weapon that responsive officials can use against less responsive colleagues. It permits, in effect, what the political scientist Pratap Bhanu Mehta called “institutional competition,” a way for different branches of government to maintain oversight over each other, which is an essential component of good governance.

Using the information act, for example, a person can provide information to a judge that allows the judiciary to challenge police inaction. Likewise, the law permits honest officials to act on information collected by citizens against corrupt officials in their own department.

Over the years, the act has been hailed as revolutionary and emancipatory. Last year, President Pratibha Patil said that it had “created a virtual Parliament of People.”

Such praise seems to be borne out by the many stories of people across the country using the act to uncover corruption and improve public services. According to a recent survey conducted by a coalition of civil society groups, more than two million information requests were filed in the first two and a half years after the law’s inception.

But one of the law’s primary limitations remains the relatively low level of awareness among citizens and activist groups. Another survey on the law’s impact conducted by the consultancy firm PricewaterhouseCoopers, found that only about 15 percent of the public knew of the law’s existence. This figure was even lower among traditionally marginalized sections of society, like women and rural residents.

Such findings are echoed by Mr. Kalayansundaram, who said that the chief obstacle he faced was the public’s lack of familiarity with the law.

To remedy this, he has been writing articles about the act in a magazine published by his organization. Once a year, on Dec. 10, internationally recognized as Human Rights Day, he drives around in a van with a loudspeaker attached to the roof, touting the law’s benefits.

Such campaigns, he told me, were starting to show results. “I’m no longer the only person doing it,” he said of his frequent information requests. “This is going to grow and grow. It will definitely change the country.”

I asked him how long he thought it would take to achieve that change. “Five years,” he answered confidently.

“Ten years, or maybe more,” he added.

“But however long, this country will definitely change.”

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