Boost freedom to know or play a little role reversal

Anuj Chopra: India's Right to Information law is a crucial weapon in the war against entrenched corruption at all levels. But those holding the power are not likely to give it up easily.

India's food security bill that promises to put a meal on every dinner table costs the economy $2 billion.
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I recommend two antidotes for government corruption in India. The first is to make every citizen a bureaucrat or a politician. If every Indian were to be plopped into a cushy seat of power and influence, public office might never again be used for private gain.

The second is to bolster India's Right to Information (RTI) law, a landmark legislation passed in 2005, which placed India among nearly 60 other nations to have freedom of information legislation. The first possibility is difficult to envisage in a country of 1.2 billion people. The second sounds more feasible. In recent years, RTI has become a potent tool to tame the indiscipline of India's ruling class. It grants ordinary citizens the right to scrutinise records, documents, e-mails, circulars and any other information held by public authority - including central and state governments, local bodies and non-governmental organisations.

It allows ordinary citizens the right to hold public officials answerable for their actions. It is not uncommon to hear cases of public money meant to build a road or a healthcare centre being swallowed by bureaucrats responsible for the project. RTI has exposed thousands of such cases. In a country where public information has always been guarded behind a veil of secrecy, the RTI has been the most effective legislation since independence.

It has introduced a rare transparency and accountability in governance and economic policy, and empowered citizens to fight the indifference and petulance in the ranks of India's vast bureaucracy. Last year, more than 1 million RTI applications were filed around India, the highest number since this legislation was passed and a sign of its growing popularity. But RTI faces serious threats. The Indian government is considering amendments to this law that could seriously weaken its effectiveness.

It plans to arm officials with the right to reject any RTI applications it deems "vexatious and frivolous". It also plans to exclude "file notings" - government office memoranda that reveal the discussions that took place among officials before a decision - from the purview of RTI. Various arms of the government, including the judiciary, may also exempt themselves. This move is symptomatic of a deep-rooted fear among bureaucrats and politicians that widespread use of the RTI legislation will end their arbitrary use of power and the opportunity to fill their own coffers.

Nearly two decades ago, the former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi said only 15 per cent of government spending on the poor actually reached them. The rest was siphoned off by officials. That figure has since worsened. An estimate by CK Prahalad, a management expert from the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan, puts the cost of corruption to the Indian economy at up to 2.5 trillion rupees (Dh195.09 billion) a year.

The growing corruption threatens India's ability to narrow an income gap that may endanger its economic success story. RTI is one of the most powerful ways to plug the leak and it is particularly important now as India expands social spending on welfare schemes this year. Social spending of up to US$47bn (Dh172.62bn) this year has helped India's fiscal deficit to touch a 16-year high. The landmark rural employment scheme, which promises every rural family 100 days of employment, now costs 1 per cent of GDP, while the food security bill that promises to put food on every dinner table would cost an added $2bn.

These schemes are important to fight the hunger and malnutrition that blight the lives of India's 800 million people who live on less than $2 a day. India ranks a dismal 65 out of 84 countries in last year's Global Hunger Index, well below countries such as North Korea and Zimbabwe. But these schemes are prone to at least partial failure if they remain subject to corruption. RTI is the strongest instrument to stop that happening. It ought to be strengthened, not diluted, if India is to call itself a real democracy.