Right-to-know law scares India’s greedy “babus”
Posted by rtiact2005 on August 11, 2006
Right-to-know law scares India’s greedy “babus”
By Palash Kumar
NEW DELHI (Reuters) – When 55-year-old house painter Nannu Lal lost his government ration card, feeding his wife and son suddenly became twice as expensive.
The card enabled him to buy his weekly rice, lentils and flour at discounted prices. He desperately needed a replacement.
But in India getting hold of something as simple as an official document often involves picking your way through a bureaucratic minefield, planted with corrupt officials who never miss an opportunity to demand a bribe.
Three months into a process that should have taken 10 days and after being shunted between offices, Lal got lucky: with the help of a local NGO, he filed an application under a new “right to information” law (RTI) seeking a progress report on his request for a ration card.
The next day, he was ushered into a top official’s room, offered a cup of tea — and handed his ration card.
“RTI is a magic wand for me,” says Lal, who earns up to 200 rupees ($5) a day and lives in a slum in New Delhi.
“Had it not been for RTI, I would have never got my card. The officials were asking for a bribe of 100 rupees, which I refused to pay.”
The new law, which came into effect last October, is helping thousands of Indians fight back against the nation’s army of lazy bureaucrats, colloquially known as “babus”.
“This law has instilled a fear among the officials,” says Manish Sisodia, a campaigner with Parivartan (Change), one of the organisations that fought for the law.
“In a democracy, we say the common man is the master but it is rarely so,” he says. “RTI gives them this power — to open any file, any document and any door. It’s proving to be a very effective tool to fight corruption, though corruption can never go from India.”
The legislation gives Indians the power to ask officials about almost anything, except issues of national security, cabinet papers and information protected by the courts.
For a fee of 10 rupees, officials have to deliver reports on the progress of applications for a passport, driving licence, voter’s ID card, water and electricity connections.
If a reply to an RTI application is not given within 30 days, an appeal can be filed. After another month with no information, the concerned official can be fined 250 rupees per day, up to a maximum of 25,000 rupees.
The money is deducted from the official’s salary, and if false or incomplete information is given, a penalty of up to 25,000 rupees can be imposed — equal to the monthly salary of the most senior government official.
The law has proved too much for officials, say activists, with the government now considering an amendment that would prevent some applicants from seeing comments scribbled on files, so-called “file notings”.
Officials and NGOs differ on the scope of the amendment but activists fear vague definitions of just what can and cannot be released will be used to seriously dilute the law’s power.
“File notings are the reasons given by officers for rejecting or approving anything,” says Arvind Kejriwal, who founded Parivartan.
“They are integral to any official document. If someone wants to know why his passport was not given, he would never know if the notings are not shown.”
For his right-to-information grassroots campaign, Kejriwal was among this year’s winners of the Manila-based Ramon Magsaysay Award.
RAGS TO RICHES
According to global corruption watchdog Transparency International, India ranked 88 out of 158 countries in the group’s “corruption perception index” in 2005.
A Transparency survey the year before placed India alongside Indonesia and Mexico in terms of corruption, with up to 20 percent of families saying they had paid a bribe at least once in the previous 12 months.
Since 2003, the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), India’s top crime-fighting agency, has launched special drives to weed out corruption: until June this year, the agency had registered nearly 3,000 cases.
“The number of cases is not important,” says Kejriwal. “What is important is how many of these people get convicted. The conviction rate in India is less than five percent. This is more dangerous.”
Armed with the new law, about 700 pressure groups and charities came together in early July to launch a nationwide campaign to make people aware of their rights.
About 1,500 volunteers set up information centre camps at key government offices in 47 cities, resulting in more than 14,000 RTI applications being filed.
“Now it has come to a stage that officers beg us not to file an RTI, promising they will do the work immediately,” says Santosh Kumari, a 22-year-old campaigner for Parivartan.