As I discussed in my last post, India’s Right to Information (RTI) law has proven to be a remarkably effective anti-corruption tool, for two main reasons. First, the law makes it easy for ordinary citizens to submit information requests. Second, the law creates a system of review by independent Information Commissions, at both the central and state levels, to ensure compliance. Citizens can appeal a government agency’s failure to provide information, or an insufficient or incomplete response to an information request, to the appropriate Information Commission, which are endowed with both autonomy and strong enforcement powers. But last July, the Indian parliament amended the RTI law—over the objections of both the opposition and civil society organizations—in ways that undermine the effectiveness of the law by giving the central government more control over the functioning of the Information Commissions.
My last post focused on criticizing these amendments, and I will not restate those criticisms here. Instead, I will take up another question: How should the government improve the RTI law? For while the law has indeed had a positive impact—as an anti-corruption tool among other things—its effectiveness is hampered by a number of important problems. Among the most serious is the risk of retaliation against RTI users. Such retaliation can take the form of harassment, threats, physical assault, and in some cases even murder. To take just one egregious example, this past December the activist Abhimanyu Panda was murdered in the state of Odisha, allegedly in connection with his vigorous use of the RTI law to expose corruption. (According to news reports and a fact-finding report by a civil society network, days before Abhimanyu’s murder he had filed multiple RTI applications asking for information concerning a subsidized food program intended for the poor. His requests sought information about the recipients and the grain stocks at particular locations; if there is corruption in the program, these are the sorts of documents that would be altered or made to disappear.) Sadly, Abhimanyu is far from the only victim. There have been over 442 documented attacks and over 80 murders of citizens directly related to the information they have sought under the RTI law. These cases end up being treated as criminal matters and investigated by the police—as they should be—but the institutions associated with implementing the RTI law should have a more active role in addressing and preventing the retaliation problem.
In particular, there are two measures the government could take—possibly under the existing legal framework—that would improve transparency and diminish the incentive to use the threat of retaliation to keep incriminating or embarrassing information out of the public eye.
- First, whenever any person who has submitted an RTI request with a public authority is physically attacked, the relevant Information Commission should order that public authority to immediately release and publicize the information sought by the attacked applicant. In Abhimanyu’s case, for example, the State Information Commission of Odisha should order the Department of Food and Civil Supplies to release and publicize the information he had requested, both online and at the distribution points for food supplied under the program he was investigating. This has been a consistent demand from civil society actors as well, and in 2011 Central Information Commission adopted a resolution calling for this policy to be adopted. But in practice, the resolution has not been effectively implemented. It is not binding, it is activated only on receipt of a complaint of an attack, and the Central Information Commission has no monitoring mechanism to ascertain whether the resolution has been followed. As Harmann Singh rightly proposed on this blog, that this resolution be made into a binding rule, and that this policy should be strictly enforced, without the need for a citizen complaint.
- Second, the government can and should do more to proactively disclose certain kinds of information, so that transparency doesn’t depend as much on private citizens taking the initiative of—and assuming the risks associated with—filing RTI requests. Again, using Abhimanyu’s case as an illustration, the Department of Food and Civil Supplies should automatically and continuously disclosure basic information concerning the implementation of the subsidized food grain program, including information on things like beneficiary lists, grain stocks, and disbursement records. In fact, the law already has an explicit provision on mandatory proactive information disclosure on subsidy programs, but in contrast to citizen RTI applications, noncompliance with proactive disclosure requirements does not trigger any penalty, a weakness that has led to incomplete or inadequate disclosures. The Central Information Commission and the State Information Commissions are in theory empowered to suo-motu call for examination and disclosure of records held by public authorities, but typically enforcing the disclosure rules has not been a priority, especially given the high volume of citizen appeals (a problem exacerbated by persistent vacancies in many of these commissions). Expanding, and more rigorously enforcing, mandatory information disclosure rules would reduce burdens on citizens—not only the financial and time costs of filing RTI requests for information that ought to be made available as a matter of course, but the personal dangers that ordinary citizens face when they take it upon themselves to use the RTI law to investigate and expose government wrongdoing.
Inayat, this is a very informative post – the RTI initiative is fascinating.
One question that immediately jumped out is: why not consider allowing anonymous requests? Has that been debated by Parliament? Citizens could set up an account on an encrypted messaging platform, therefore allowing them to submit requests and receive documents without fear of their identity being exposed. Or a citizen could submit an anonymous paper request with instructions to mail the documents to a PO Box, to an attorney’s office, or some other destination that would mask the requester’s identity.
I understand that this proposal is premised on the requesting citizen having access to resources – digital or otherwise – that are not universally accessible, which would inevitably limit its success. But I’d imagine that the option of anonymity would at least decrease some of these attacks, especially when a citizen might anticipate a violent reaction to their request and could prepare accordingly.
Inayat, this was very interesting and troubling.
I wasn’t sure how public RTI requests are – is the request itself made public or is the request only disclosed to the Information Commission (at least until the request is fulfilled)? Essentially I was curious about who exactly would know someone has made an RTI request before it has been fulfilled (assuming the private citizen making the request hasn’t made this public on their own). From your post, it seems that at least in some cases, retaliation has occurred before the requested information has been released. With regard to the high number of RTI-related attacks, threats and incidents of harassment, has there been any discernible pattern of who the perpetrators are? Have any of these incidents been tied to government officials who might have been implicated in corruption scandals if the requested information became public? If so (and maybe even if not), could measures be taken to better insulate information requests within the government bureaucracy or to better monitor who individually has access to that information once a request has been made? Again, I’m not sure exactly how the RTI request process works, but it seems like it may not always be beneficial to private citizens to make it publicly known that they are requesting information until after the request has been fulfilled.
Thanks for this post Inayat, very interesting as always! I was wondering how you envision the responsiveness to attacks playing out. Would the citizen have to show they were attacked because of the RTI request? Or would the information be released following any attack (even if, say, it turned out to be a random mugging?). If the former, I wonder how this alleviates the burden on the attacked person to make their complaint. If the latter, could this not undermine real concerns about releasing information. So, for example, if an agency had genuine objections to releasing requested information, could they still resist doing so?
Maura, I think your comment is very interesting and highlights a chief concern with disincentivizing attacks by automatically releasing the requested information: it has an indirect impact on actually preventing future attacks. For example, an aggrieved party could decide that the automatic release of the information is a worthwhile cost in this one instance, because the attack itself will have such a massive deterrent effect for future requesters.
I think that measures designed to prevent the attacks themselves, either through protecting the requesters or further increasing transparency in Indian society to alleviate the burden on individual requesters, would probably be the most effective. Ex post solutions might be less effective at preventing future attacks unless the deterrent effect is so massive that no rational bad actor is willing to take the risk.
Apart from anonymity, as suggested by Eric in the first comment, some other feasible preventive measures could be taken by the people interested in public information, such as the filing of the requests collectively by more than one person, in order to dilute the attention on a specific individual, or the filing of the requests by a legal entity, like a non-governmental organization, which could avoid personalization of the initiative. It would be interesting to know whether Indian legislation allows for those types of request.
Inayat, thanks for this fascinating post! Like Rodrigo, I too was curious if organizations could file RTI requests instead of individuals, to preserve anonymity and diffuse the risk taken by any given individual. I’d imagine this could lead to other forms of retaliation against the requisite organization, such as unnecessary raids or investigations or fees for trumped up violations, but might still be an effective mechanism.
Moreover, for people filing sensitive RTI requests, I wonder if there could be a mechanism to request temporary police protection. You mentioned the police handled the attacks and murders- how many of these have resulted in the assailant being found and charged? The police in India is often corrupt and subject to capture by political interests- could there be independent tribunals set up to investigate and prosecute specifically acts against RTI filers?