An official Finance Ministry document, secured by an activist under India’s new Right to Information (RTI) Act, that casts doubts on the role of Home Minister P Chidambaram in one of India’s biggest financial scandals involving the sale of telecom licenses, underscores the political firepower the six-year-old law has unleashed.
The role of the finance minister in the “2G scam” was exposed as a result of a RTI application filed by Vivek Garg, a Delhi-based publisher, who has submitted over 4,000 RTI requests over the past several years. Buried in the 550-pages he received from the prime minister’s office, was one document hinting that then finance minister P. Chidambaram could have prevented the scam.
The disclosure has led to demands for Chidambaram’s ouster and set up high-powered confrontation between him and a frequent colleague and occasional political foe, the current Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee.
According to the latest annual report of the Central Information Commission, more than 529,000 RTI applications were filed in 2009-2010. The RTI Act, adopted in 2005, has become the most powerful weapon in the arsenal of activists to expose public corruption, prompting Corporate Minister M Veerappa Moily to complain that the RTI Act was “transgressing into government functioning.” Law Minister Salman Khurshid rued that “it is not only government officers or ministers who feel that way, judges also feel it.”
The RTI Act empowers any Indian citizen to seek information, take notes, extracts or certified copies of documents or record from government and public authorities. “It is an important tool in the hands of people in a representative democracy like India where people vote once in five years to assert their participation in the government. RTI can make the democracy participative,” says Shailesh Gandhi, Central Information Commissioner of India.
Gandhi, chairman and managing director of a plastic packaging company in Mumbai, sold his business and became a full-time RTI activist in 2003. The state government of Maharashtra had enacted the state’s RTI Act in 2002. “I couldn’t divide my time between business and activism, so I decided to give up my business,” he says.
In the first RTI application he filed, he took on politicians for intervening in police transfers in the state. Though his application was rejected, he continued invoking RTI to prevent the giveaway of Rs 10 billion in public money for the redevelopment of the iconic Crawford market in South Mumbai to a private builder to erect high-rises. Gandhi questioned the proposal through RTI applications and then mobilized citizen opposition against the project, ultimately leading to its scrapping.
He also grilled the government on the use of the Chief Minister’s Relief Fund, exposing through RTI-secured documents that public money collected between 2003 and 2005 for disaster relief in Maharashtra went to the organizers of sports competitions, entertainment and religious congregations instead.
Gandhi, with his impressive history in RTI activism, was appointed as the Central Information Commissioner of India in 2008. He believes that the Anna Hazare’s anti-corruption movement is a spin-off of the citizen movement that came about through RTI Ñ empowering citizens to stand up against the government.
“An individual can now take on the government by filing an RTI application that has to be responded to. It is a tool of citizen empowerment which can change the very paradigm of democracy in our country,” Gandhi says.
Gaurang Vora, a pathologist by profession and an RTI activist by choice, echoes his opinion: “RTI is a wonderful tool that delegates power in the hands of a common person. It can bring about a sea change in the governance process.”
One of the first nominees for the National RTI awards in the citizens’ category, Vora’s RTI application saved Mumbai from a Rs 300 million scam. In 2006, the Brihan Mumbai Municipal Corporation planned to replace durable foot-path stones in South Mumbai with concrete paver blocks, which don’t last more than 2-3 years. Vora exposed that some officials related to the manufacturers of paver blocks were working hand-in-gloves with officials, following which the project was quietly scrapped. He also blocked the cutting of 1,400 trees for the widening of a road, which he discovered through RTI applications.
For his activism, he and 10 fellow activists spent a night in 2009 in the infamous Arthur Road jail, which houses the infamous terrorist Ajmal Qasab, who was convicted for the 26/11 attacks on Mumbai.
“There are loopholes in the RTI act which are exploited by the government to withhold information. The common citizen has to know the laws very well,” emphasizes Vora. Nevertheless, RTI is a gift to activists as it gives them the right to question the government, he says.
“I had been feeling strongly about the abuse of power and non-implementation of laws in society. I sat down reading newspapers and magazines and wrote letters to the editor. But while I was trying to engage with the authorities, there was also a need to seek information,” Vora recalls.
Gandhi was similarly driven: “In school and college, we were constantly criticizing the society and there was an implicit feeling that we could do better. In the 1950s, I was the society. I felt responsible for society’s degeneration and decided to do something instead of merely criticize.”
Pune-based RTI activist Sanjay Shirodkar began invoking the RTI after his sour experiences with the country’s corrupt system. A senior manager with a company in Pune, since 2008 he has engaged in a dogged pursuit of a goal to bring the Mumbai International Airport under the purview of the Right to Information Act. His efforts bore fruits in 2011 when privately-managed airports were brought under the ambit of the RTI Act, a decision that is bound to impact all public-private partnerships in the country.
NRIs can also seek information under the RTI Act. The Indian Embassy in the US began accepting RTI applications a few years back. NRIs must submit payment of 25 cents (equivalent of Rs 10) and documentary proof of their Indian citizenship.
Somu Kumar, a volunteer of the non-profit group, Association for India’s Development (AID), was one of the first NRIs to file an RTI from US. He says in practice NRIs cannot exercise the option: “NRIs cannot directly file RTI in India as Indian departments only accept Demand Draft or Money Order for Rs.10. As we cannot obtain either of this, we are banking on the Embassy to act as a nodal office to facilitate this process, but unfortunately they have refused to do so.”
The embassy’s website claims: “Applicants are, therefore, advised to send their requests under the RTI Act to the Embassy only when the subject matter can reasonably be presumed to pertain to the Embassy. While section 6(3) provides for the transfer of an application by a receiving PIO to another [concerned] PIO, this is clearly meant to cover situations where the application is addressed to a PIO on the assumption that it has been directed to the concerned PIO. Where the information required obviously does not pertain to the Embassy, the application may be addressed to the concerned PIO directly.”
Commissioner Shailesh Gandhi acknowledges that his agency received several complaints from NRIs on the difficulty of exercising their RTI rightss, and says the commission is working on the complaints.
Kumar has worked around these limitations by filing an RTI application requesting for Dow Chemical’s communication with the Indian embassy relating to the Bhopal gas tragedy. This led to the revelation that Dow Chemicals sought to pre-empt the judicial outcome of the case by pressuring officials at the Indian Embassy in Washington.
Indian activists are seeking to expand the use of the law by organizing RTI workshops in schools, colleges and other organizations to help citizens understand the law and train them in filing RTI applications. The use of RTI will no doubt expand considerably over the next several years.
Not surprisingly, there has blowback. At least 12 RTI activists have been killed during the last year and several others have been threatened and assaulted. Vora acknowledges the intimidation: “It does scare us, we are not super humans after all. But the urge to seek information and to speak against injustice is strong enough to overcome fear.” Shirodkar who has filed nearly 100 RTI applications, says he avoids the crossfire, because all his RTI applications are against the system; he avoids seeking information against any individual.
Gandhi brushes off the apprehensions: “Though I have dealt with serious problems, I have never been threatened or assaulted, probably because it could be dangerous to attack a commissioner.” He says he is proposing a law in the Information Commission to ensure protection of RTI activists.
After all, the right to information should not be lethal for you.