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