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A Great and Revolutionary Law? The First Four Years of India’s Right to Information Act

Thursday, October 28th, 2010
By Alasdair Roberts

India's 2005 Right to Information Act (RTIA) is among dozens of national laws recently adopted similar to the U.S. Freedom of Information Act. Drawing on several large studies examining the act's implementation, the author finds that Indian citizens filed about 2 million requests for information under the RTIA during its first two and half years. However, use of the law was constrained by uneven public awareness, poor public planning, and bureaucratic indifference or outright hostility. Requirements for proactive disclosure of information are often ignored. The necessary mechanisms for enforcing the new law are also strained by a growing number of complaints and appeals. Nonetheless, RTIA advocates demonstrate its transformative potential and continue to press energetically for more effective implementation. Public authorities and civil society organizations have developed a number of practical innovations that may be useful for other developing countries to adopt when considering similar laws.

In 1966, the United States adopted the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), which established a right to information held by federal government agencies. Strengthened after the resignation of President Richard M. Nixon in 1974, FOIA became the model for dozens of statutes adopted by U.S. state governments. FOIA also became a model for other countries, such as Canada, Australia, and New Zealand—all of which adopted similar laws in 1982. By 1990, 15 other nations—mainly wealthy advanced democracies in Europe or the Commonwealth—had similar statutes (Roberts 2006, 1–23).

In the next two decades, however, enthusiasm for FOIA-style laws exploded (Banisar 2006). Some of the other wealthy democracies—such as the United Kingdom, Germany, and Japan—finally adopted similar statutes. Many countries—such as South Africa, Mexico, and states in Central and Eastern Europe—adopted freedom of information laws as a way of expressing a new commitment to democratic governance. Some governments also adopted freedom of information laws to control corruption, often acting on advice from international organizations such as the World Bank or Transparency International.

By 2010, more than 70 nations had national laws comparable to the United States’ FOIA. Even China had adopted regulations establishing a right to government-held information. Most of the countries that have adopted laws over the last two decades differ in important ways from the United States and other early adopters. On the whole, they are less affluent, less politically stable, have weaker administrative and legal systems, and are more prone to corruption (Roberts 2006, 108; Tiwari 2009). An important question—only now being answered—is how well FOIA-style laws will work under these more difficult conditions.

India is one of the most important recent adopters of FOIA-style legislation. The Right to Information Act (RTIA) was adopted by India’s Parliament in May 2005 and went into effect in October 2005. Like the United States’ FOIA, the RTIA gives Indian citizens a right to obtain information held by public authorities. However, the RTIA is broader in scope. While the U.S. law applies only to national government, the RTIA applies to all of India’s state and local governments as well.

India is one of the most important recent adopters of FOIA-style legislation. … Like the United States’ [Freedom of Information Act], the RTIA gives Indian citizens a right to obtain information held by public authorities. However, the RTIA is broader in scope. While the U.S. law applies only to national government, the RTIA applies to all of India’s state and local governments as well.

India, although a long-established federal democracy, confronts challenges in economic and political development unknown to the affluent nations that first adopted FOIA-style laws. Its per capita gross domestic product is roughly one-twentieth that of the United States. Two-thirds of its 1.2 billion people still lives in rural areas, although the country is urbanizing rapidly. (By contrast, only one-sixth of the U.S. population is rural.) Forty percent of the population is illiterate, and many belong to oppressed social groups. There is recurrent sectional and political violence (Nussbaum 2007). Government programs to promote social and economic development are often undermined by mismanagement and systemic corruption (Chand 2006, 18–22). The Indian bureaucracy, whose fundamental features were established during the era of British colonial rule, is very powerful, and shares the British bureaucracy’s penchant for secretiveness.

Advocates of the RTIA argue that the law can help purge inefficiency and corruption from government, control bureaucratic power, and increase the political influence of marginalized citizens. And expectations about the transformative potential of the new law are very high. The Bangalore-based Public Affairs Centre describes the adoption of the RTIA as a “watershed moment in the history of public governance in independent India” (2009, 1). A committee of Indian information commissioners also said recently that the statute “has the potential to change the nature of governance in India” (Commissioners’ Committee 2009, 16). Speaking to a national conference in Delhi in October 2009, Lord Meghnad Desai called the RTIA “a great and revolutionary act … another step further in the embedding of democracy.” A report prepared for India’s central government in 2009 agrees that the RTIA could “bring in a socio-economic revolution” (PricewaterhouseCoopers 2009, 27).

Whether the RTIA fulfills these hopes hinges largely on how it is implemented. Indeed, the rapid diffusion of FOIA-style laws has led naturally to a growing international literature on problems of implementation. Significant reports have been published recently about implementation in the United Kingdom (Hazell, Worthy, and Glover 2010), Mexico (Bookman and Guerrero Amparán 2009), and China (Piotrowski et al. 2009; Xiao 2009). But India has examined implementation more doggedly than any other country. In 2007–2009, two major national studies about the operation of the RTIA were completed, along with a half dozen studies of more limited scope (see Table 1). This profusion of studies provides an extraordinary opportunity to consider whether the RTIA is meeting expectations about its revolutionary potential. This is a question that is relevant not only in India, but also in many other countries in similar circumstances, which have either adopted or are considering the adoption of FOIA-style legislation. 

For the full text of this article click here.



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