Which are the desert districts of Rajasthan

A new «right to information» in India

India has a new law that guarantees "freedom of information" and forces the state to open its books. This gives citizens the opportunity to demand services where, under the pretext of secrecy, inefficiency and corruption have prevailed so far.

The city of Delhi still uses open canals to discharge sewage. Numerous slums have grown along these “nallahs” over the years. The canals are also used as rubbish pits, with the result that sewage often accumulates and floods slum huts. In Sheikh Sarai, the neighborhood in which the reporter lives, the inhabitants of such a slum had repeatedly called to the local government because a weir with a small opening was holding back waste and the stinking backwater penetrated the huts. Most of the time nothing happened because the city hid behind the argument that it was illegal settlements. Or a worker came by and poked in the garbage until the cloudy mass started moving again for a few weeks. When a flood threatened again a few weeks ago, a non-governmental organization (NGO) intervened. Engineers from the city came by within a few days, the opening in the weir was deepened and widened, and new sewer pits were dug.

Widespread abuse of government funds

What happened? The NGO had taken the new law on the “right to information” as an opportunity to inspect the community's data: When was the sewer last cleaned, which official was responsible for it, how much money was spent on it? It turned out that the sewer had been cleaned on paper a year earlier, but that nothing had happened since then. The release of the information must have got around quickly among the officers, and the workers were on the spot immediately. For the first time, the slum dwellers experienced that the all-powerful “Delhi Municipal Corporation” could be targeted, that the poor and the poor could also demand public services and, above all, that they could check whether public funds were being spent for the declared purpose or in disappear in the pockets of the officials. In a second case in the same neighborhood, a street was paved overnight after the relevant documents had been requested. The documents showed that the road should have been repaired three years ago and that the money raised for it had also been paid out at that time.

The new law on freedom of information allows every citizen to inspect official documents, to copy these documents and to have them certified. If requested information is not released within thirty days, anyone can sue the newly created post of "Information Commissioner" who fines the guilty officer with a hefty fine of 250 rupees for each additional day he withholds the information Three times the official minimum daily wage). Officials who have destroyed or tampered with data can be fired. “Information” is not only defined in its paper form or as electronic storage, but as “material in every possible form”. In this way, material samples during public works can also serve as evidence that inferior materials were used. There are still a number of areas that are exempt from disclosure, all those that concern public safety issues. But if the citizen can assert a “public interest”, a judge can also make this category accessible.

Nationwide regulation

The law will apply throughout the country, including in states that have already passed such a regulation themselves. The “Right to Information Act” also replaces the “Freedom of Information Act”, which the previous government passed in 2002 and which was full of loopholes. It was an attempt by the administration to absorb the growing pressure for disclosure with a paper edict. This included, for example, the absence of any sanction in the event of non-compliance and the exemption of the state order and security services from any information obligation. This exemption is also provided for in the new law, but with the important exception in the case of suspected corruption and violations of civil and human rights. With the latest law, another relic of the colonial era has now finally disappeared. So far, the state had been able to hide behind the draconian “Official Secrets Act” of 1923, with which the colonial rulers could keep practically every administrative decision out of the view of the local population. As with many other laws, independent India after 1947 found nothing in adopting an undemocratic instrument of power in its collection of laws, even if it had previously been its victim itself.

The amazing thing about the new law is not just the recognition of basic democratic rights. It is also an example of how closely knowledge and power are related. This is precisely what the development of the new legislation shows. The regulation did not come about as a result of pressure from the liberal urban elites or politicians, who themselves often benefit from the information prevention. Rather, it was the end result of a popular movement that began among villagers in Rajasthan in 1994. The movement was triggered by irregularities in public works. Road maintenance projects are the most common (and convenient) form of government poverty alleviation, with billions of rupees pouring into such programs every year. They are designed to prevent millions of people from starvation or starvation without work and without resources. It is also the most common form of corruption. The economist Kirit Parikh estimates that only sixteen paises of one rupee ultimately reach the beneficiaries. 84 percent of the funds disappear somewhere on the long way from the central bank to the construction site in a remote village.

Accompanied by the activist Aruna Roy, the movement began in the village of Kot Kirana in the desert district of Pali, where once again only half of the stone knockers had been paid and the rest received only half of the wages due to them. Since the officials referred to the entries in the work lists for the payment of wages, but did not want to reveal them for inspection, the women had no opportunity to prove the injustice. With the help of Roy's NGO, they decided to go on a sit-in in front of the next administrative post. When the "Dharna" swelled more and more, the district chief had to intervene. He forced the officer in charge to hand over the information. It quickly became apparent that many workers' names were missing or that the services were only partially registered. This led to further protests in villages, to sit-in strikes in the next larger city and finally in the capital of the state of Jaipur. Newspapers began reporting on the movement, and opposition politicians showed solidarity with it.

A victory for democracy

The more documents were available for inspection, the clearer the fraud became. During a sit-in strike, for example, the detailed material list for a village center was read down, with the expenses made and acknowledged for windows, door frames and roof tiles. The meeting took place in the square where the center should have been, but it was not built. Eventually, the Rajasthan government was forced to allow access to payrolls, tenders and receipts. The vaunted Indian democracy, all too often a fig leaf for inefficiency and corruption, suddenly began to take hold. In the next election campaign, the opposition promised to pass a corresponding law. And after her victory, she was forced to keep her election promise. Rajasthan with its “Right to Information Act” was soon followed by other states in which NGOs had become active. With the new federal law, eleven years after the sit-in strike in Kot Kirana, every stone-knocker in every Indian village and every slum-dweller in Delhi has the right to demand accountability for public money spent.