< Freedom Of Information Laws in India

Transcript

Friday, November 18, 2011

BOB GARFIELD:

As we heard, the adoption of freedom-of-information laws has been a decidedly mixed blessing in India. Corruption there runs rampant. One study found that more than 55 percent of Indians have had to pay a bribe. The country instituted a Right to Information Act in 2005. But the stakes are staggeringly high for Indians who’ve filed RTI requests.

Mehul Srivastava has covered this for Bloomberg News. He says that one thing that India's experiment with the Right to Information Act has shown is that unintended negative consequences aside, the requests do seem to work.

MEHUL SRIVASTAVA:

There’s a study that Yale researchers did in 2008 about ration cards. In India the government rations food out to people who are below the poverty line.

And they found that if you paid a bribe or you filed an RTI request to find out why your ration card hadn’t been approved, it was equally affected. If you didn’t, you might wait three times as long or never even get the ration card that you are, by law, entitled to.

BOB GARFIELD:

And now people all over India are filing RTIs, the equivalent of a FOIAs, not necessarily to get to the bottom of some political mischief, but just to get the bureaucracy to work. And what's happened?

MEHUL SRIVASTAVA:

You see about half a million requests a year, and that's only at the federal level. At the state government level, the data is not collected but there’s probably just as many or more requests happening. Most of them are, as you said, about day-to-day bureaucratic activities and “why is the road in front of my house not complete,” “why don't I have running water in my house and in my neighborhood?”

And there are people who will be lobbying to get the Supreme Court justices to reveal their assets. But that's a very small percentage. Most of this is day-to-day stuff that people worry about, and now they have a way to hold the government accountable, because once they file a FOIA request, once they file a RTI request, it has to be honored within 30 days.

BOB GARFIELD:

But the bad news is some of them are paying a very heavy price.

MEHUL SRIVASTAVA:

That’s true. Because the law is so powerful, it also has the ability to threaten incredibly corrupt government officials and their partners in crime.

Since January 2010 at least 12 people had been killed. Most of them had been shot, some of them beaten to death because they’d filed an RTI request that would allow others to see who was responsible for whatever local corruption they were trying to expose.

There's about 40 people we found who’d been beaten, threatened, socially ostracized. Because they come from smaller communities – they may be in a village in central India – and they’ve heard about this law and they’ve figured it out, and once they make the request, the very small number of government officials in that general area will collude to make sure that this information is not made public. And bumping the person off or beating up his family or threatening his livelihood is a very good way of telling these people that this is not something you want to be doing.

BOB GARFIELD:

One of the problems, I gather, is that the person who’s charged with processing the RTI request may be the person who’s corrupt to begin with.

MEHUL SRIVASTAVA:

Yeah, it’s a fantastic conflict of interest when you ask the district collector in India, who’s kind of like the equivalent of being the top executive in a county over here, in America, that I want to see why the electricity hasn't worked for eight days. And he may have diverted the electricity to somebody else for money.

Now he's got this request in front of him, and if honors it, his job’s in danger. If he doesn’t honor it, then you could go to courts and force him to reveal that information.

BOB GARFIELD:

Has anyone been prosecuted for any of the violent crimes against whistleblowers?

MEHUL SRIVASTAVA:

This is an incredibly sad statistic, but of those 12 people who were murdered, not a single person has been successfully prosecuted.

BOB GARFIELD:

Is there any evidence that the violence is having a chilling effect on others who would be filing RTIs?

MEHUL SRIVASTAVA:

It's tough to kind of track them by numbers because the ones that are not made, you really can’t analyze. But there is amongst what they call in India the RTI activist community a certain concern that their lives are in danger.

So one of the things that they do, they said they form these communities amongst each other through emails and Listserv and social networking where they share the information amongst each other, so it's not just one person who is in a position to expose corruption. If you’re beaten up or your family’s threatened, there’s hundreds of other people around the country who have now the same information you received.

BOB GARFIELD:

An info cooperative protecting everybody by  sharing the information.

MEHUL SRIVASTAVA:

Yeah, and the government’s taken a page out of that book because they recently announced an initiative to say that if you, for instance, make an RTI request and before the request has been honored, you’ve been assaulted or you’ve been killed or you’ve been threatened, the government will then, either by taking out a full-page advertisement in a newspaper or on its websites, take your RTI request and the results of that and make them as publicly available as possible.

So that removes the motivation to kill somebody because the government will then extra publicize the information that that person had requested.

BOB GARFIELD:

And when does that take effect?

MEHUL SRIVASTAVA:

We don’t have a time for that yet. We may have to file an RTI request [LAUGHS] to find out what happened –

[BOB LAUGHING]

- with that.

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BOB GARFIELD:

Mehul, thank you very much. 

MEHUL SRIVASTAVA:

And thanks for having me.

BOB GARFIELD:

Mehul Srivastava is a reporter at large for Bloomberg.

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