India’s Right to Information Act: The First Four Years

13 January 2010

By Alasdair Roberts

India’s Right to Information Act (RTIA) went into force in October 2005. It is probably the most ambitious experiment with transparency in the world. The law promises a right to government-held information to 1.2 billion citizens, most of them living in rural poverty. Its advocates say that the law could produce a “socio-economic revolution.” But can the RTIA meet these high expectations?

A series of reports completed over the last year begin to provide an answer. There are two large-scale evaluations—one produced for the Government of India by PriceWaterhouseCoopers, and another by a coalition of civil society organizations, the RTI Assessment and Analysis Group. In addition there are half-dozen smaller studies completed by government and non-governmental groups. I’ve summarized the key findings in a recent paper.

The new law is being actively used, with an estimated two million requests filed in its first two and a half years. Most of those requests are directed to offices of state and local government. Many requests are intended to prod officials to deliver promised services and benefits—such as rationed food, backpay and pensions, roads and other public works, or teachers for primary schools. Local action groups are learning how to integrate the law into their campaigns against corruption. In one extraordinary case, non-governmental groups in Orissa used the RTIA to show that official and businessmen had stolen four million kilograms of rice intended for distribution to the poor.

At the same time, there are daunting barriers to full realization of the RTIA’s potential. One difficulty is a simple lack of awareness about rights provided by the law. One survey suggests that only about fifteen percent of the Indian public knows about the RTIA. That proportion is sharply lower among the rural poor. It is estimated that a startling ninety percent of RTIA users are men.

People who want to make requests for information must overcome several practical and psychological hurdles. Many offices don’t provide guidance on how to file requests. Some government agencies give responsibility to lower-level staff who don’t have the training, authority or resources needed to respond to requests properly. Citizens are often intimidated or threatened when they ask for information, especially in rural areas. Several of the recent reports urge central and state governments to show more seriousness in overseeing the implementation of the new law.

There are also difficulties with the enforcement mechanisms contained within the law. Like similar laws in other countries, the RTIA allows citizens to file appeals about inadequate responses to a state or national information commission. Many of the studies say that the credibility of these new bodies has been undermined by the widespread practice of appointing retired public servants as commissioners.

A second enforcement problem is the growing backlog of appeals within some commissions. It’s worth remembering that the scale on which the RTIA is being implemented is unprecedented. The information commission for the state of Maharashtra received 16,000 appeals in 2007—more than five times the number received by the United Kingdom’s commissioner for the whole of the country in the same year. Some commissions, short on resources, are struggling to keep up with the inflow. The PriceWaterhouseCoopers study concludes that rapid growth in appeals is creating “a grave situation that requires urgent intervention.”

The implementation of the RTIA is highly decentralized. Although it is a national law, and central government bodies have given extensive guidance on how it should be put into force, proper implementation still hinges on the efforts of thirty-five state and territorial governments. This inevitably leads to unevenness. But it also creates ample opportunity for innovation in dealing with the challenges of implementation.

For example, many state governments are experimenting with new ways of promoting awareness among marginalized communities. The state government of Bihar has collaborated with a non-governmental organization, Parivartan, to create an award-winning call center that allows citizens to file requests by phone—with the RTIA charges put on their phone bill. Several commissions are devising new ways of streamlining their procedures so that they are not caught under backlogs of appeals. Many citizens are also testing how the law applies to functions that have recently been privatized or spun off to quasi-public bodies.

It’s probably too early to say whether the RTIA will produce a socio-economic revolution. The answer may hinge on whether practical problems of implementation are resolved in the next few years. But it is clear that the world—advanced countries and developing countries alike—can learn a great deal from India’s vast experiment with the right to information.

Read the paper: Roberts, Alasdair S., A Great and Revolutionary Law? The First Four Years of India’s Right to Information Act (January 9, 2010). Public Administration Review; Suffolk University Law School Research Paper No. 10-02.

* Alasdair Roberts is the Jerome L. Rappaport Professor of Law and Public Policy at Suffolk University Law School. His website is http://www.aroberts.us. Further inquiries can be directed to alasdair.roberts [at] gmail.com.

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