Improving India’s Right to Information Law to Protect Citizens

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. Continue reading

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