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Do Ordinary Indians Care about Their Right to Information?

Fumiko Nagano's picture

India’s 2005 Right to Information Act (RTIA) was described earlier on this blog by my colleague Darshana Patel, who saw first-hand some of the innovative efforts by district governments in the state of Maharashtra to implement the RTIA. She concludes her post with a caveat: legislation is important, but it is the actual use of it that leads to its effectiveness—and that use depends on public awareness.

This important point, among others, is discussed in detail by Alasdair Roberts of Suffolk University Law School in his informative paper, “A Great and Revolutionary Law? The First Four Years of India’s Right to Information Act.” The paper examines the progress to date in the implementation of the RTIA. Comprehensive and ambitious, the RTIA is hailed by enthusiasts as a legal measure with a “revolutionary” potential. However, the results of numerous studies including two recent large-scale assessments of the state of the RTIA reveal that the task of implementing the law is not without major challenges. According to Roberts, at the root of the difficulties are: “uneven public awareness, poor planning by public authorities, and bureaucratic indifference or hostility.” The first and third factors are the ones that I found more interesting for the purposes of this blog, and in this post I will focus on the issue of public awareness.

With respect to public awareness, studies indicate that in general, awareness levels of RTIA tend to be low among citizens and public officials alike, particularly in rural areas. As the potential of the law to act as an effective tool for improving transparency and accountability hinges on its use by citizens as well as enforcement by public officials, and both rely to an extent on awareness of the law, this is a real challenge.

Specifically with respect to citizens, some of the more astonishing findings by Roberts include: a) among poor households, only 4% are aware of their right (hence the RTIA use tends to lea n towards the urban middle class), and b) between men and women, awareness levels differ sharply, with men accounting for 90% of RTIA users. It therefore appears that the RTIA is a tool being used mostly by urban, middle class men. Furthermore, even among those who know about the RTIA, most are unaware of where, to whom, or how to file, as this critical information does not tend to be widely available. And even if the more determined citizens are able to overcome these practical difficulties, some are then faced with the nuisance of having to make multiple follow-up visits before they can finally file the requests, not to mention hostility, threats and harassment from public officials for the very act of filing. Roberts quotes a study: “Applicants, especially from weaker segments of society, are often intimidated, threatened or even physically attacked when they go to submit an RTI application, or as a consequence of their submitting such an application.” It sure does not sound like a pleasant experience—if I were one of the applicants, I would wonder whether these officials really were committed to implementing the law…and would probably conclude to the contrary.

While these findings paint a rather dismal picture of the RTIA’s state of affairs in so far as citizen awareness is concerned, Roberts says that there are pockets of the Indian bureaucracy that are fully committed to improving the effectiveness of RTIA implementation. To this end, the authorities, sometimes in partnership with civil society, have developed a number of innovative tools to raise public awareness of the law. Below are some examples he cites:

  • In Kerala, the information commission is working with the state’s literacy authority to conduct  RTI classes attended by 300,000 people
  • In Assam, the state government has recruited and trained local NGO staff in rural areas so that they can train citizens on the RTIA
  • India’s international film festival, featuring only productions about RTI, may very well be the only film festival of its kind

 

These tools, in addition to user-friendly awareness raising campaigns, such as the RTI trucks in Maharashtra, are precisely the types of initiatives needed to educate wider pools of citizens—not only urban, middle class men—about the RTIA. For, how can ordinary Indians care about their right to information if they don’t know about it or what it can do for them?

Photo Credit: Flickr user heathbrandon

Comments

I think the biggest drawback to the RTI is that the Indian bureaucracy thrives on the opaque ways it works. If processes were simple and straightforward, how would they be earning their bribes?

Submitted by Madhu Sudan Sharma on
Hii, I am one of the RTIA watchers in Rajasthan. My real worry is not awareness level of RTIA in Rajasthan but the number of PIOs designated so far on the last four years to supply the demanded information to the applicants. Just see the comparison between Andhra and Rajasthan. More than 2 lac in AP and only 35,000 in Rajasthan. Second worry is mounting back log of seecond appeals at SIC level. In a second appeal case of my friend. which was sent ot SIC on 30 Nov. 2009, date of hearing is given on May2010. What does it mean?These is no guarantee that decision will be taken on the given date and how long it will go on?let hope for sth good.

Submitted by Sairam Vepakomma on
Hi viewer, To me India was carved (by constitution and vision) to remain an 'illeterate mass' by and large. This was intended to loot the people as long as it allows by the politician and bureaucrat. The politicians right from Nehru incepted it and the same was promoted by the IMFs/ World Banks to suit their greed to siphon funds. What use this RTIA has to that deprived illeterate majority and logically blind caste-drivers ONE - nothing was done to popularise it, TWO - There is no axing on those defaulting implementation, THREE - it was made only to 'comply' with no intent to implement, FOUR - it is ultimately remained in the hands of those partisan politicians to decide next (suitable) steps. I could only see the best use made by the press/ media to make a haul of business through RTIA. RTIA should be an autonomous organization by itself, reporting directly to the Executive. Instead of spending millions of rupees on few big advertisements, we can spend he same budget on small teasers in vernacular media/ one-liners on AIR and FM channels. I am proud to be an Indian as I see this as the best place to live-in, whatsoever. I take pride to have born on this land of future. Apologies, though I had not intended to bruise the sentiments of anyone, intentionally. Regards,

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