Friday, 31 July 2009

How effective is India's Right to Information Act (RTI)?

Yamini Aiyar

Last week the Hindustan Times quoted a prominent Central Information Commissioner, Mr. Shailesh Gandhi, warning the country that the government and the judiciary together pose a serious threat to the RTI. Gandhi argued that the government’s infrastructure - training, resources - for the implementation of the RTI is woefully inadequate. He also highlighted the role of the courts in weakening the Act. The judiciary has been granting stays on orders of the information commission – which he noted is a very dangerous trend.

Gandhi’s concerns resonate with some of the findings of a recently completed country-wide assessment of the RTI conducted by the Right to Information Assessment and Analysis Group’s (RAAG). The study surveyed 27 information commissions to find that nearly 60% of the commissions reported inadequate infrastructure as their biggest problem. Inadequate staff and low budgets were the most commonly cited problems. Perhaps because of inadequate infrastructure, there is a wide variance in the speed and efficiency with which Information Commissions dispose of cases and some states (Gujarat, Maharashtra and Chhattisgarh) have an estimated waiting period of over one and a half years!

The problem of poor infrastructure is not restricted to the ICs. 900 Public Information officers (PIOs) across rural and urban India were interviewed as part of this study. 60% of them reported never having received any basic training in the RTI. As a result there is a lot of confusion about the Act particularly about the kinds of information that ought to be made public. Another serious lacuna in the government’s infrastructure for the RTI is that of poor record maintenance. Across the system, no effort has been made to collect, analyze and store information in a manner that is accessible and relevant to the public – a fact that was made evident through interviews with heads of departments in all states. Poor record keeping results in delays in the provision of information and is often used as an excuse not to furnish information sought. Moreover, governments departments are not making any effort to disseminate information pro-actively. The study surveyed the extent to which government departments are complying with section 4 (proactive disclosure) to find that 70% of government departments report on less than 50% of the items specified in section 4 of the Act. Worse still of the information reported, most of it tends to be out of date and unusable.

There is some good news! Despite this poor infrastructure, people are getting information. The study team filed and tracked 500 RTI applications. Information was received in 55% of cases, and in 40% cases information was received on time. This experience is similar to that reported by applicants surveyed (over 2000 applicants were surveyed in the study) where 58% respondents reported receiving information and 50% said they received information on time.

This good news may be short-lived if steps are not taken urgently to address infrastructure weaknesses. But perhaps the greatest threat the RTI faces comes from the prevalent mind-set – one that runs deep through all our public institutions - that is fundamentally resistant to the idea of open government. The judiciary’s opposition to the RTI application seeking information on judge’s assets and the recent trend that Shaliesh Gandhi alludes to of courts issuing stays on IC orders points to this problem point to how this mind-set manifests itself. The obvious irony of the Courts, the key institutional mechanism for enforcing accountability of the executive and legislatures, refusing to hold itself up to legally set standards of accountability and transparency, has not escaped most commentators. Crucial for the future of the RTI is the urgent need to take steps towards initiating this mind-set change. Civil society needs to rise to this challenge.

Yamini Aiyar is the Director of Accountability Initiative, and Senior Research Fellow at Centre for Policy Research

Saturday, 25 July 2009

What effect do information campaigns have on the political behaviour of citizens and their representatives?

Bala Posani

In a democracy, having cast their votes and investing their elected representative with the power to govern them, citizens have a right to know how they are being governed, and to demand detailed scrutiny of the process. In this sense, information about their government is something that citizens have a reason to value intrinsically. But access to information is also seen as being instrumental in improving the quality of democracy in many different ways.

For instance, one hypothesis that was at the heart of information campaigns preceding the recent parliamentary elections in India was that access to information about elected representatives enables citizens to make informed voting decisions, which in turn would mean better quality of representatives. An informed electorate would also mean that it is in the incentive of the representative to perform better in order to win back the votes. The media and the civil society organizations enthusiastically carried out many campaigns leading up to the elections, informing electorates about their representative’s performance, assets, criminal backgrounds, and so forth, in the hope that their voting decisions be based on information on substantive indicators rather than caste, religion or region.

Satark Nagarik Sanghathan (SNS) is one such organization. SNS works at the grassroots with the residents in some of the South Delhi slums, assisting them in their use of the RTI Act to improve access to public services. Also, like they had done for the MLA elections in late 2008, SNS ran an information campaign leading up to the recent MP elections. Employing the RTI Act, and other means, they accessed information about the performance of MPs along important indicators like the level and quality of participation in the Parliament and standing committees, and the manner in which they spent the discretionary constituency development funds that each MP is allocated. Using this information, they brought out MP Report Cards, which were publicized widely in collaboration with the mainstream newspapers. Focus Group Discussions and door-to-door campaigns were conducted in selected slums to disseminate this information to the citizens. This was in addition to the more sustained campaign and discussions in which SNS educates the citizens about the roles and responsibilities of Councillors, MLAs and MPs, so that citizens know what they are entitled to, what to expect of their elected representatives, and who to approach for what kind of grievance.

I was part of a team from Accountability Initiative, which had the opportunity to qualitatively study the effect of SNS’s information campaign on the citizens in the slums. We were interested in the effect on their ‘political behaviour’, which we defined in a broader sense than merely voting decisions. We were also interested in other forms of demand-making on political representatives that take place between elections, and perhaps more ambitiously on how the residents in the slums defined themselves in relation to their representative.

Over a period of one month, we spoke to the residents of five selected slums where SNS works. The study is still ongoing, and we are hoping to get some inputs from the elected representatives themselves, for a comparative perspective. Admittedly, changes in political behaviour of both citizens and elected representatives, happen over sustained periods of time, and are very difficult to measure. As we progress with the study, we will have more postings about it. But at this stage, there are a couple of interesting preliminary observations about collective action and leadership, which we can talk about.

First is observations related to ‘collective action’ for accountability. Who participates in the SNS meetings, and why? We found that the attendance in SNS meetings is predominantly by women, but this could be because the men are away at work during the day. Not all the women seem to retain what is discussed in the meetings, but they still turn up, some of them avidly. In many cases their motivation behind going to the meetings is the hope that SNS will help them access what they are personally entitled to, especially in cases where these entitlements are well defined – for example, ration cards, and SC cards and so forth. It would appear then, that collective action is more forthcoming when there is expectation of entitlements that are selective, tangible, and well defined.

A second observation is about leaders and change agents. We found that in most of the camps there were one or two women who were more engaged in SNS meetings than others. Women who had higher than average levels of education that their neighbours, and who came from less patriarchal family backgrounds are more likely to become resident activists of the organization. They also had significant spill-over effects on their immediate community, and were approached by others for discussing their grievances. Identifying and working with such change agents at the interface might be critical to any successful intervention of this sort.

Although it is early days, we observed that there is an incipient shift in the way these residents demanded services from the state. While traditionally, they worked through their pradhans, through strategies like appeasement or corruption, the information campaigns, and the Right to Information Act appear to have allowed people to start asserting their demands through the argument of rights and entitlements.

In our future posts we will have done more research to be able to talk about what effect the information campaigns had on the kind of demands made on the elected representatives, and if this has had any effect on how the representatives perceive the citizens.

Bala Posani is a Senior Research Analyst at Accountability Initiative