The 2019 Amendments to India’s Right to Information Law Threaten to Blunt a Powerful Anticorruption Instrument

India’s Right to Information (RTI) law, originally passed in 2005, gives all citizens the right to submit a request for information (in person, in writing, or online) to any public authority at the national, state, or local level; the request may concern any information related to the functioning and affairs of that authority. If the request is denied or unduly delayed, or if the information provided is incomplete, applicants may appeal, first to a designated Public Information Officer at the public authority to which the request was made, and then to special bodies called Information Commissions, established at both the state and national levels. These Information Commissions are designed to be autonomous and have the power not only to order timely production of requested information, but to levy penalties on public authorities for noncompliance and to award compensation to citizens whose requests were wrongfully denied or ignored.

India’s RTI law—which is one of the strongest such laws in the world, used by an estimated 4-6 million people annually—has proven to be a particularly effective anti-corruption tool. There are hundreds of examples of ordinary citizens using the RTI law to expose local government corruption, and the law has also unearthed some major national-level corruption scams. For instance, an RTI request filed by a civil society activist group revealed that a housing society on prime land in South Bombay, meant for war widows, was wrongfully given out to politicians, bureaucrats, and military officers; this so-called “Adarsh Society Scam” led to the eventual resignation of the Chief Minister, as well as criminal charges against several officials. Another civil society group used the RTI law to expose the “Commonwealth Games Scam,” in which funds associated with the Commonwealth Games in Delhi, earmarked for the social welfare of marginalized communities, had been wrongfully diverted. The exposure of this malfeasance led to an official investigation that ultimately resulted in the arrest and suspension of the responsible minister.

This past July, the Indian parliament amended the RTI law for the first time, despite resounding opposition. While there are indeed aspects of the RTI law’s implementation that need to be addressed—including the numerous vacancies at Information Commissioner posts, which has led to long delays and backlogs in RTI appeals—the amendments do not address any of these genuine pressing issues. Instead, the amendments focused on the appointment, tenure, and salary of the Information Commissioners. Proponents of the changes claimed that these amendments were minor technical fixes, designed to streamline the appeals process and improve functioning. In fact, the amendments pose a serious threat to the autonomy of the Information Commissions, and thus to the efficacy of the RTI law in exposing wrongdoing that could embarrass or incriminate powerful political figures and their cronies. Continue reading

India’s New Electoral Bond Scheme Won’t Reduce Electoral Corruption. It Will Make the Problem Worse.

Indian elections have long been celebrated as a festival of democracy—in part for their sheer and increasing scale, with over 900 million voters and thousands of political parties registered. Election expenditures have also been on the rise. India’s last national elections were the most expensive elections ever held anywhere in the world, with an estimated expenditure of Rs. 55,000 crores ($7.74 billion)—much of which was financed through private donations. In India as elsewhere, all this private money in politics raises concerns about corruption, both legal and illegal. This problem is exacerbated by a lack of transparency.

Under the rules as they existed until two years ago, individuals and domestic for-profit companies could contribute to political parties via cash, check, or demand drafts. Political parties are required to file an annual income statement, listing both sources of income and expenditures, with the Election Commission, a constitutional oversight body. These statements are publicly accessible under India’s Right to Information law. However, contributions below Rs. 20,000 ($280) could be anonymous, and political parties traditionally exploited this loophole to avoid disclosure of donors. The total share of income from unknown sources has been steadily increasing for all six major political parties, and in the last returns filed for 2017-18, income from unknown sources was over half (51.38%) of these parties’ collective income.

Over the past two years, there have been several reforms to campaign finance. The most significant reform has been the replacement of cash donations with a new mechanism for political donations, so-called “electoral bonds.” Under this system, the threshold for anonymous cash donations was reduced by a factor of ten, but private parties can now make anonymous donations via a bond with the State Bank of India (a public sector bank) in fixed denominations ranging from Rs. 1,000 ($15) to Rs. 1 crore ($1.5 million), during allotted windows. These donations remain anonymous not only to the general public, but also to the recipient political party.

The stated objective of these reforms is to target the practice of money laundering in campaign finance and increase transparency. In a previous post on this blog, written shortly after the new scheme was introduced, Abhinav Sekhri argued with cautious optimism that this tool, though imperfect, was indeed a step in the right direction. I disagree. In fact, the electoral bond system has decreased transparency and increased the potential for corruption, for several reasons: Continue reading

New Podcast, Featuring Monika Bauhr

A new episode of KickBack: The Global Anticorruption Podcast is now available. In this episode, I interview Monika Bauhr, Associate Professor of Political Science and former head of the Quality of Government Institute at the University of Gothenburg. During our conversation, Professor Bauhr discusses her research work in three key areas: (1) the impact of pro-transparency reforms (particularly the adoption of freedom of information laws) on corruption; (2) the disaggregation of the broad category “corruption” into different types of corruption (such as “need” corruption versus “greed” corruption); and (3) the relationship between gender and corruption, in particular what factors might account for the apparent correlation between greater representation of women in elected office (or the business or political elite more generally) and lower (perceived) corruption levels.

You can find this episode, along with links to previous podcast episodes, at the following locations:

KickBack is a collaborative effort between GAB and the ICRN. If you like it, please subscribe/follow, and tell all your friends! And if you have suggestions for voices you’d like to hear on the podcast, just send me a message and let me know.

The Bolsonaro Administration is Quietly Reducing Transparency in Brazil

Right-wing populist Jair Bolsonaro was inaugurated President of Brazil on January 1, 2019. As a candidate, Bolsonaro promised that his regime would break with the large-scale graft of Brazil’s former leaders and would ruthlessly pursue the corrupt and bring them to justice. At the end of January, Justice Minister Sergio Moro released, with much fanfare and press attention, a sweeping anti-crime legislation package that addresses both white collar crime and violent organized crime, and that incorporates some, though not all, of the anticorruption measures proposed by Transparency International. So does this mean that the Bolsonaro Administration is following through on its promise to make the fight against corruption a major priority, and to end the culture of impunity that has shielded Brazilian political elites?

Alas, no. While the anti-crime package (and other high-profile pieces of legislation, like tax reform) have been highlighted by the administration and attracted most of the media attention, less prominent yet equally consequential pieces of legislation related to corruption are being passed with little to no warning or public debate. Here are two examples of major events that have occurred within the first month of the regime that should give anticorruption scholars and the international community pause in their evaluation of the Bolsonaro government’s fight against corruption:

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Is Sunlight Really a Good Disinfectant? The Equivocal Evidence on Freedom of Information Laws and Corruption

Government transparency is widely considered to be one of the most important means for combating public corruption, a sentiment nicely captured by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis’s famous observation (in a somewhat different context) that “sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants.” For this reason, many anticorruption activists lobby for the adoption of strong freedom of information (FOI) laws—laws that not only obligate the government to regularly publish certain types of information, but also to respond promptly to citizen requests for a wide range of government records and documents. The thinking is that government corruption is easier to detect when citizens, civil society organizations, and the media can scrutinize information about government operations.

I count myself firmly in the camp of those who tend to believe that FOI laws are useful anticorruption tools, especially given the strong evidence that citizen and media access to government information can indeed help reduce corruption and hold officials accountable (see, for example, here, here, and here). And because of this, I would expect the evidence to indicate that when a country (or sub-national jurisdiction) adopts a stronger FOI law, corruption should decrease afterwards. But I’ve been looking into the research on this recently, and most of the results don’t fit well with my expectations. Long story short, the (admittedly limited) quantitative empirical evidence does not find a strong correlation between the adoption of a strong FOI law and a subsequent decrease in corruption; if anything, the evidence actually seems to suggest that the adoption of a strong FOI law may be followed by an increase in (perceived or detected) corruption.

Does this mean that FOI laws are ineffective or even counterproductive? I don’t think so, for reasons I’ll lay out in a moment. But I do think it’s worthwhile—especially for those of us who are inclined to support broad FOI laws—to consider the evidence carefully and reflect a bit on what it might mean. Continue reading