India may be the world’s largest democracy, but it is still governed by a vast and powerful bureaucracy. For much of India’s history, that bureaucracy has been largely opaque and unaccountable, legitimized by leftover vestiges of colonial rule, such as the Official Secrets Act (OSA) of 1923.
Many of India’s citizens—who represent nearly a third of all poverty in the world—have had limited access to information and few means to assert their rights, rendering them passive spectators of their own government. Without access to the information that drives the actions of their government, people cannot hold government accountable, nor can they adequately participate in the decisions that shape their lives.
Simply put, information is power.
The Right To Information Act (RTI), passed in 2005, put that power into the hands of India’s 1.2 billion citizens, creating an information revolution that spread across the country. Passed after a decade of campaigning by good-governance activists like Aruna Roy, the inaugural recipient of the WJP’s Rule of Law Award and one of TIME Magazine’s 100 most influential people in the world, the RTI Act has become legendary.
In the first three years the law went into effect, more than two million applications were filed.
The RTI Act, spearheaded by Roy’s organization MKSS, was designed to level the playing field between the government and the people. It requires all authorities to appoint public information officers and to respond to requests for information within 30 days, giving citizens the power to demand accountability from bureaucrats and politicians. Moreover, the law has teeth—it is backed by tough fines for government officials who withhold information, which encourages compliance.
Today, people use the law for everything from inquiring why a long-promised road hasn’t been built in their village, to getting access to subsidized housing loans without having to pay a bribe, to determining whether public health workers are actually showing up at their clinics. For many in India, the RTI helped provide legal empowerment by giving ordinary citizens the feeling that the government is accountable to them.
But now, the RTI Act is being threatened.
India’s government is considering amendments to the RTI Act in the coming session of Parliament that would clip the wings of the law by negating an order declaring that political parties are considered public authorities under the RTI Act. It is likely that these amendments will also seek to curtail other entitlements that have established the ability of the RTI to fight corruption and the arbitrary use of power by the government.
If these amendments come to pass, the ramifications could be significant. Transparency has little value if it is not accompanied by accountability. And without accountability, India could be risking the confidence of its citizens and its investors at a time when it is needed the most.
As the second-fastest-growing economy in recent years, losing the confidence of small business owners and investors could be problematic for India. The RTI Act holds as much importance for the business sector, academics, media, and civil society as it does in the lives of its most marginalized rural citizens. Employment, environmental standards, food security, human rights, and other key issues are inextricably linked to the right to information. The right to information, especially in regards to government transparency, bolsters the rule of law. Currently, India scores just below the halfway point on the WJP Rule of Law Index for Open Government, however, the proposed amendments to the RTI stand to lower its ranking.
In the words of Aruna Roy, “perhaps the only real argument for the credibility of India’s government has been the enactment and implementation of the RTI Act. It has been an entitlement which has kept the intent of a free and open system of governance afloat.”
As rule of law advocates throughout India and beyond clamor to save the RTI Act, let us hope that India’s government uses this moment of public dialogue as an opportunity to consider the importance that this landmark law has had—not only for its citizens, but as an example of one of the most ambitious steps towards transparency in the world.