The movement for the Right to Information (RTI), born in Rajasthan in the mid-nineties, caught the imagination of ordinary people. Initiated by villagers under the banner of the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathana (MKSS), a grassroots non-party organization, the movement spread like wildfire. People began demanding information and holding public hearings on issues like expenditures on roads and school buildings, land deeds and the functioning of health centers. As demand for information snowballed, public lobbying resulted in the passage of the RTI Act in 2005. Three years after this groundbreaking central legislation came into force, how effective has it been?
There is no dearth of RTI success stories. For instance, in April 2006, people in rural Karnataka used the Act to obtain basic food security. Chandramma of Chennagiri village, explains, "We were not getting our monthly rations. We complained under RTI, and the officials invited us for a meeting. Now, we get rice at Rs 3 and wheat at Rs 2 per kilogram." What's more, there is a noticeable improvement in the quality of the food grain supplied. N.M. Muthappa, member of the Right to Food Campaign, Karnataka, recalls that street plays and public hearings were held to create popular awareness. After a week of public hearings, the government was jolted into action. State functionaries supplied ration cards and new ration shops were opened. "For the first time, women were confident enough to ask why they were not being given rice and wheat at the correct price," says a proud Seetamma, President of the Davangere Self-Help Group (SHG).
Moving beyond anecdotal data, a number of organizations have got together to assess the functioning of the Act. The Right to Information Assessment and Analysis Group (RAAG) is conducting the research, in collaboration with National Campaign for People's Right to Information (NCPRI), Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Centre for Study of Developing Societies (CSDS-Delhi), Association for Democratic Reforms-Bangalore, North-Eastern Network-Guwahati, Centre for Action Research and Documentation-Bhubaneswar, and School for Democracy-Jaipur. Recently, RAAG presented its interim findings at a day-long meeting at Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, New Delhi.
Preliminary findings from 144 sample villages in six states - Assam, Karnataka, Meghalaya, Orissa, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh - have identified 117 RTI applicants. Dr Shekhar Singh, NCPRI, points out, "Extrapolating from this data, we can estimate that in 600,000 villages, over 400,000 applications have been filed! This is surely extremely significant." About 33 per cent applicants were school educated, 1 per cent was illiterate, while others had education beyond school level. Twenty per cent applicants were members of Scheduled Tribes and Scheduled Castes, and 20 per cent had BPL (Below Poverty Line) ration cards. Economically weaker sections have used RTI to get their children into schools, those who were supposed to be beneficiaries of the Indira Awas Yojana have used it to avail of the housing scheme, a visually-challenged person has used it to question his 'panchayat' (village council), a 90-year-old woman has deployed it to get her passport, and university students have monitored examination procedures through this process. One-fourth of the applicants had heard about RTI from television, and another fourth from NGOs. About 80 per cent of applications received a response from the government.
Vishaish Uppal, RAAG, notes, "We have held over 200 focused group discussions in rural areas and municipal wards. Two-third participants felt access to information would help solve their problems." Thus, RTI is being perceived as a critical tool for empowering ordinary people today.
RAAG has collected some 5,000 case studies from different parts of the country, primarily from the media, websites, mailing lists and blogs. The case studies show a myriad of citizens using the Act in unique ways. Babanrao More, 86, a Dalit farmer, used RTI to save his strawberry fields near Mahabaleshwar, Maharashtra. When revenue officials suddenly diverted water from their natural spring to upper caste farmers of a neighboring village, the Dalit farmers felt helpless initially. They saw a ray of hope when More's grandson, Shivaram, told them about the RTI Act. They filed an application in April 2006 to find out who owned the spring, and whether all the documents were in place. The authorities immediately backtracked, and stopped laying pipes to divert water. Says More, "We wanted to fight this out, even if it meant that a few of us lose our lives. We didn't want to give up on what our forefathers had painstakingly created."
In March 2007, Tushar Dalvi, 60, filed an RTI query with the Income Tax (IT) department's central Public Information Officer (PIO), asking about the status of a refund, which had been pending from 2002. Whereas earlier he had got no reply to repeated queries, after the RTI the IT department sent him his refund within a week!
There is, however, a down side to the RTI story. In the sample so far analyzed, the percentage of women applicants is a low 10 per cent. To Nikhil Dey, the indefatigable RTI activist, this is a matter of great concern. He hopes analysis of larger, more representative samples, will indicate a higher percentage of women applicants. "A number of collective applications have been made by rural women, on developmental issues such as water supply and functioning of schools, which have not been analyzed in the survey so far. But it is true that even if a woman is the primary applicant, it is often her husband or son who files the application. We have to look into this to better understand what is happening," says Dey.
According to Yamini Aiyer of RAAG, Public Information Officers appear to be convinced that anybody who files an application must be male. To obtain information about RTI applications for its urban survey, RAAG researchers actually filed about 200 applications. Aiyer reveals, "All the RAAG applications were filed by women. But all the responses unfailingly addressed us as 'Mr'."
There are other problems too. For one, the bureaucracy is basically hostile to the idea of democratizing information. Some states have enforced prohibitory measures, such as exorbitant fees for filing an application. Others report the non-availability of PIOs, and sluggishness in responses to applications. When, in September 2008, Muddasar Ali brought his ailing mother from Bulandshahar, Uttar Pradesh, to a government hospital in Delhi, doctors advised surgery, and asked him to purchase drugs worth Rs 30,000 from a chemist. Ali filed an RTI asking details of the drugs stocked with the hospital, and the procedure through which these can be made available to poor patients. The case didn't come up for hearing within the prescribed time, upon which Ali filed a petition in the High Court seeking urgent intervention. Noting the time lapse in such cases, advocate Girija Varma points out, "Provisions of RTI Act have been rendered ineffective in health emergency and Life and Liberty issues, with vague, evasive replies."
All this has made Kuldeep Nayar, veteran journalist and erstwhile Member of Parliament, impatient, "The RTI should be used for bigger causes, such as tracing responsibility for the flooding of the Kosi River, and identifying culpability in human rights violations, killings and 'riots'. We have yet to exploit the RTI Act. To what extent has it been able to make the government open and accountable?"
Certainly, the RTI Act has made ripples within government circles, and created a sharper awareness of what democracy might actually mean, a point that S.P. Sarkar, Joint Secretary, Department of Personnel and Training (DoPT), is in agreement with. But it needs to have a greater impact, both within society and government. After all, much is at stake. As Aruna Roy, veteran RTI activist, put it, "People are raising very important, fundamental issues. Through RTI we are engaging in a huge democratic battle for a better India."