The right to dig up dirt helps Indian activists clean up chronic corruption

The Indian parliament passed the Right to Information Act in 2005, placing the country among 55 other nations to have "freedom of information" legislation.

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PUNE, INDIA // Shivaji Raut is neither a powerful bureaucrat nor an influential politician. Yet, he has the power to effect change. Or so this 50-year-old high school science teacher realised five years ago when he began using India's landmark Right to Information Act (RTI) to unearth a slew of corruption cases in the western state of Maharashtra. Using the RTI, Mr Raut has exposed how arms and liquor licences were unlawfully awarded to relatives of politicians; illegal sales tax exemptions were given to wind mills erected by corporations that some politicians had stakes in; state funds reserved for implementing social programmes for the poor were pilfered by officials.

The Indian parliament passed the RTI in 2005, placing the country among 55 other nations to have "freedom of information" legislation. It granted ordinary citizens like Mr Raut 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 nongovernmental organisations. In 2009, more than a million RTI applications were filed around the country, the highest number since the legislation was passed.

In a country where public information has always been guarded behind an iron veil of secrecy, the RTI has been the most important legislation since independence, say activists, as it has introduced a measure of transparency and accountability in governance. "RTI allows us to hold public officials answerable for actions that they professedly take on our behalf," said Mr Raut. "It is a powerful democratic right that allows us to expose corruption that would normally be brushed under the carpet."

Since it came into force, the RTI has proved to be a powerful force against corruption, which is endemic in this country of 1.2 billion. Graft is widely regarded in India as a cancer, hampering the economy and impeding attempts to bolster the country's flagging infrastructure. 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 (Dh199 billion) a year.

According to the latest Transparency International Report, India ranks a dismal 84 out of 180 countries in terms of corruption. The RTI is also being used to fight the indifference and petulance found within the ranks of India's vast bureaucracy, but activists face several challenges. Mr Raut said procuring information is still sometimes an enervating exercise due to government red tape: A 2009 survey of the leading economies of Asia, revealed Indian bureaucracy to be not just least the efficient on the continent, but also found that working with the India's civil servants was a "slow and painful" process.

He also said that applications for information under the RTI are sometimes inordinately delayed and six times - out of 163 applications Mr Raut has submitted over the last few years - they were rejected. That is despite it being mandatory for officials to reply to RTI applications within 30 days, or 45 days for information concerning corruption and human rights violations by security agencies is to be provided within 45 days. If they fail to respond within this period officials can be fined by as much as Rs25,000.

The legislation also holds some key caveats. Information related to security, strategic, scientific or economic interests are strictly off-limits for citizens. The act is also not enforced in the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir, where activists claim human rights violations by the state are high. In December, the Delhi High Court delivered a ground-breaking judgement that ordered bringing the chief justice of India under the ambit of the RTI. The verdict was welcomed by activists who said it would bring rare transparency to the actions of India's judges, some of whom have in the past found to be prone to corruption.

But KG Balakrishnan, the chief justice, insisted that his office should not be brought under the ambit of the transparency law. "The problem is that if I divulge information containing opinions about judges' appointments, it'll affect the judiciary's independence," he said. Those using the RTI also risk intimdation or worse. Satish Shetty, 38 an active campaigner in the city of Pune who aggressively used the RTI to expose a series of land scams and abuse of power by local officials, was fatally attacked with swords by masked assailants as he left his home on a morning walk last month.

"The swords that pierced Satish Shetty did not just kill a Right to Information activist, but also stabbed the spirit of democracy," said Anna Hazare, a well-known social activist and an RTI campaigner. "He was killed simply because he used RTI to unearth corruption, and in the process, antagonised the vested interests of the powerful. The clear message that the killers want to send out is that nobody should dare to do what Satish did."

A number of RTI activists around the country have faced threats of violence and death. "This audacity to commit such a heinous crime against a person who was selflessly working for social justice by highlighting corruption, in my opinion, cannot be mustered unless the perpetrators enjoy the blessings of those who are in power," Ms Hazare said. "This is frightening and can cause a serious setback to RTI movement."