Reportage

Dangerous Knowledge

By MEHBOOB JEELANI | 1 January 2011
PHOTOGRAPHS BY SAMI SIVA
Shashidhar Mishra’s picture garlanded in a niche at his former home in Phulwaria.

ON THE EVENING of 12 February 2010, Shashidhar Mishra returned to his village, Phulwaria, after another day spent selling biscuits and sweets on the roads of Begusarai district in northern Bihar. The broken roads in the village were badly lit, but Mishra knew the place so well that the bicycle he dragged, loaded with his wares, lacked a headlight. As Mishra approached the small bylane leading to his house, however, a power cut cast the road into darkness.

Some 200 metres away Mishra’s brother, Mahinder, lit a candle to attend to a final customer at his small grocery shop. A few minutes later, a long-bearded sadhu entered the shop. “I stumbled upon a body outside your house,” the sadhu whispered in his ear. Mahinder bolted from the shop, leaving his customer behind. He ran by his instincts—rushing past a cluster of shops, turning swiftly through the narrow lanes, jumping over an open drain—and arrived at his doorstep to find his brother dead on the ground, blood still seeping from his head.

“It was a pistol shot,” Mahinder told me when I visited Pulwaria in October. The identity of Shashidhar’s killer remains unknown, and Mahinder believes the police have failed to pursue the investigation. Mahinder, a dark-skinned man in his 20s with a stiff face and dense stubble, has little faith the murder will ever be solved—the village’s politicians and pradhans, he told me, have taken no interest in the case. As we spoke, Mahinder’s mother, Sushila Devi, squatted nearby on the floor, leaning against the damp wall of their mud house. At her hip she held Shashidhar’s 14-month-old son, who played with a corrugated key dangling from her neck like an amulet.

This, Mahinder believes, is literally the key to his brother’s murder: it opens a room where the family has stashed a dozen Right to Information (RTI) applications filed by Shashidhar shortly before his death. His final inquiries, they tell me, were directed to the local police.

Shashidhar Mishra, a compact 32-year-old who spent his entire life in Pulwaria, worked as a street vendor, bicycling to nearby villages to sell biscuits and chocolates; his family and neighbours remembered him as a sharp-witted man who was renowned for his command of written Hindi, despite having failed to complete middle school. Before setting out on his rounds every morning, he stopped at the District Magistrate’s office to deposit an envelope at the public information counter—question after question addressed to the district’s bureaucrats and administrators.

In 2005, the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government introduced India’s first Right to Information Act, an anti-corruption measure that was intended to provide citizens access to records and documents kept by local and central authorities. Applicants submit questions attached to a simple form—to request, for example, that the government prove that the money allotted to national welfare schemes has been properly spent—and the relevant agency is obliged to provide answers.

The RTI law gave hundreds of millions of Indians the ability to hold the country’s vast bureaucracy to account, and, it was hoped, to arrest the endemic corruption in its ranks. Prior to 2005, government documents and records were covered by the Official Secrets Act 1923, inherited from the Raj, whose protections were often misused to hide evidence of bribes, kickbacks and nepotism. The RTI law had been a central plank of the Congress campaign in the 2004 general elections, and its passage, after a decade of agitation by good-government activists, appeared at first to herald a new era of transparency and accountability. The law’s impact was felt almost immediately, by low-ranking bureaucrats and top national officials alike: Prime Minister Manmohan Singh disclosed his assets and those of his cabinet ministers in response to an RTI application.

Shashidhar Mishra filed his first RTI application in 2008—by the time he died, Mahinder told me, he had submitted more than 1,000. His inquiries usually concerned issues troubling the villagers of Pulwaria: he sought information about how his panchayat spent its funds; he asked local health officers to explain why their dispensary lacked basic medical supplies; he asked the police to explain how they dealt with the vehicles recovered from thieves. One of Mishra’s applications led to the removal of an illegally constructed dairy stall at the Begusarai railway station; another, according to an account in a local newspaper, exposed a local mafia that sold contaminated water in mineral water bottles.

Mishra’s inquiries were wide-ranging, directed at local contractors, pradhans, politicians, bureaucrats and police. As word of his RTI applications began to spread, other villagers sought his help in filing their own applications, waiting along his bicycle route to ask his advice and assistance. In the course of his own applications, Mishra had become well-versed in the workings of local government, and shared this information freely with anyone who asked: villagers soon began to call him ‘Khabri Lal’—the newsman.

Mahinder Mishra feels certain Shashidhar was killed for his attempts to hold local powers to account: after the murder, Mahinder told me, the police “searched the house and seized most of the RTI forms.” “The electricity goes off, the killers shoot at him, and the gunshot is not heard,” Mahinder said. “How can I accept there isn’t any powerful hand involved?”

ON 27 JANUARY 1996, a raid on a government office in southern Bihar uncovered evidence of what was—at least by the now-quaint standards of 15 years ago—one of India’s most shocking corruption scandals, the Bihar Fodder Scam. For more than 20 years, a series of state officials from multiple political parties, in coordination with dozens of senior bureaucrats, had siphoned off an estimated ten billion rupees from the treasury by fabricating vast numbers of imaginary livestock and stealing funds allotted for their care and feeding. The scam, which landed the then Bihar Chief Minister Lalu Prasad Yadav in jail—albeit briefly—revealed a crooked nexus of politicians, senior bureaucrats and businessmen, and triggered a widespread national debate on corruption.

The Fodder Scam, splashed across the headlines month after month, lent new momentum to an existing movement of activists and advocacy groups for transparency in local governance. The National Campaign for People’s Right to Information (NCPRI) was formed by a group of activists, lawyers, journalists and academics later that year, and produced a draft Right to Information law that was sent to the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government—which declined to act on the proposal for four years, and eventually signed a very weak Freedom of Information Act only in 2002, though the NCPRI successfully pushed for state-level RTI Acts in Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra and several other states.

When the Congress party retooled its campaign platform for the 2004 general elections—reverting to the old party slogan, Congress Ka Haath Aam Aadmi Key Saath (Congress is with the common man)—it promised the introduction of a more ‘progressive, participatory and meaningful’ Right to Information act. To draft such legislation, the Congress president, Sonia Gandhi, turned to Aruna Roy, a Magsaysay Award-winning activist who had spearheaded some of the first local RTI efforts in Rajasthan in the early 1990s. Roy joined the newly created National Advisory Council, which produced a new draft RTI law at the end of 2004.

But the path to the passage of a robust RTI Act was far from over: even under the auspices of a friendly government, the bill met opposition from the Law Ministry, which stripped the proposed legislation of numerous key elements before returning it to parliament—limiting its scope to the national government, for example, and eliminating the provision for penalising officials who refused to provide information requested by the public.

Roy confronted Sonia Gandhi over the crippled bill—and threatened to resign from NAC if it was passed in its weakened form. She sought similar assurances from Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who assured Roy that he would support the original draft.

After Singh’s intervention, a parliamentary committee reviewed the bill and proposed 187 recommendations to restore strength to the law, which was then re-introduced in parliament. After 15 minutes of discussion, the House agreed on all but one of the amendments, rejecting the stipulation that information commissioners would have only 30 days to respond to each request for information; instead, the commissioners, who have power to impose penalties on recalcitrant officials, were given an unlimited amount of time to handle appeals. On 12 October 2005, the law was passed in parliament to great fanfare. Manmohan Singh claimed that the RTI Act would herald the beginning of a new era and “eliminate the scourge of corruption.”

Five years later, it’s safe to say that the scourge of corruption remains, perhaps more powerful than ever. “This law has faced tough resistance right from the beginning,” said Arvind Kejriwal, an activist who helped lead the movement for RTI. “Every party and every bureaucrat has tried to weaken this law. They don’t want to give up their power to hide information from the public.” A former civil service officer who resigned from his post at the income tax office to protest the rampant corruption he saw there, Kejriwal received the Magsaysay Award in 2006 in recognition of his contribution to the RTI movement and his work against corruption. “By passing the law,” he told me, “politicians have dug their own graves. They know it, and they are finding ways to weaken it.”

THE IMPACT OF THE RTI ACT was felt almost immediately. At the 2009 national RTI convention, held in New Delhi’s Vigyan Bhawan, the audience was repeatedly moved to tears by the stories of poor farmers, low-wage workers and other previously powerless individuals who had used the law to demand accountability from local authorities.

The story told by Kunal Mochi, a low-caste cobbler from Sammanchak village in Patna district, was among the more striking—but hardly unique. Two years ago, Mochi had filed a complaint against the owner of a local farm with the police for non-payment of wages. The police ignored him, but with the help of an RTI activist, Mochi filed an application and the police were compelled to investigate his case. When the landowner was found to be in violation of labour laws, Mochi was paid his overdue wages in a matter of a week. “He even said sorry to me,” Mochi said, fighting back tears while standing on stage. For a moment the hall went silent—one of many such moments, when it was clear that the RTI Act had the potential to change the lives of millions of voiceless and powerless Indians. When Mochi, a young man still in his 20s, walked back to his seat, the audience erupted in applause.

For Mochi and thousands like him, the RTI Act has been life-changing. “It is not only about the right to know,” an activist named Subhash Chandra Agrawal told me. “The meaning has changed: it means a right to live now.”

Agrawal, a compactly-built man in his 60s from Old Delhi, holds a Guinness world record for having written more than 30,000 letters to Indian newspapers. But after 32 years of scribbling paper missives to the media, many of them concerning instances of official corruption, he learned about the RTI Act and began filing applications instead—more than 1,000 so far, he says.

In late 2008, Agrawal raised a constitutional question: he filed an application with KG Balakrishnan, the  former Chief Justice of India, asking whether the judges serving under Balakrishnan in the Supreme Court had disclosed their assets, as was required by an earlier judicial resolution. The Chief Justice refused to provide an answer. Agrawal won an appeal at the Central Information Commission, only to have the Supreme Court challenge the decision in the Delhi High Court, where Agrawal prevailed once again.

In the meantime, Agrawal’s application triggered a nationwide debate on the RTI Act and its applicability to the Supreme Court. For weeks on end the battle was front-page news in India’s largest newspapers, and the RTI law became a prominent subject of discussion among Delhi’s elite. It was clear, by this point, that the law had made a substantial impact: in its first three years, more than two million applications were filed. Post offices even reported shortages of ten rupee stamps—which are used to file applications by Speed Post—because of the volume of RTI activity.

But the law remains under pressure from all sides: the government has discussed a number of amendments that would weaken the act, though the growing community of activists has successfully raised a public uproar and prevented their passage. The real threat to RTI, however, comes not from further legislative action but from the failure to uphold the law’s requirements: the RTI Act has empowered citizens to ask questions of their government, but it has done little to force officials to comply with those requests, and the state information commissioners—often themselves former bureaucrats—have made little use of the provisions to levy fines against lower-level officials.

All this might have been expected at the time of the law’s introduction: a culture of corruption cannot be reformed in five years. What was not anticipated, however, was the rising volume of threats against RTI applicants and activists. The murder of Shashidhar Mishra was the second killing of an RTI activist in 2010, following the high-profile death of Satish Shetty, who was killed in Pune in January after exposing a series of land scams in Maharashtra. By September 2010, seven more RTI activists had been murdered. At a conference organised by the Central Information Commission in September, Union Law and Justice Minister Veerappa Moily broke the government’s silence on the matter by calling the murdered activists “martyrs,” and promised that a bill to protect the identity of whistleblowers would be introduced in the winter session of parliament.

That bill, however, has not yet materialised, thanks in part to an unprecedented deadlock in parliament: the session that began in November has been wiped out by an Opposition protest demanding a Joint Parliamentary Committee probe to investigate into the biggest scam in a year already rich with corruption. The so-called 2G scam began with A Raja, the now-disgraced telecom minister, who is accused of selling valuable mobile telephone spectrum at rock-bottom prices to favoured business houses. But it has blossomed in the public eye into an astonishing spectacle of moral turpitude, sucking in journalists, politicians and business leaders, all of whom have been captured on tape talking to the lobbyist Niira Radia—who has been depicted by the media as the centre of a vast web of crooked deal-making.

The income tax department carried out a wiretap on Radia’s phone during 2008 and 2009, and the tapes—representing thousands of calls—have leaked slowly into the public domain, providing an endless diet of titillating evidence against Radia and her numerous friends and associates. The business titan Ratan Tata, who appears on one of the tapes already leaked to the public, has filed a case in the Supreme Court seeking to block further publication of their contents on privacy grounds. But Prashant Bhushan, a lawyer and activist who has filed numerous Public Interest Litigations aimed at uncovering the extent of the 2G scam, is adamant that the RTI Act should ensure that the tapes are indeed made public.

“Section 8 of RTI says any information related to the public interest must be made public,” Bhushan told me at his residence in Noida. “In this case, the recordings reveal all kinds of illegal and immoral dealings of corporate lobbyists who influence the decisions of the parliament for their personal gains.” Bhushan, a soft-faced man in his 50s, is recognised globally for speaking out against judicial corruption. “This is a time when people can know how this country is run by the corporates and their fixers because such high-profile scams surface rarely.”

The season of scandals that has shaken Delhi’s highest echelons provides yet another reminder of the need for a more robust RTI law, even as it underscores the extent to which the law in its current form has made little impact on the nexus of corrupt politicians, businessmen and bureaucrats. In the latest report from the global corruption watchdog Transparency International, India ranks a dismal 87th on an index measuring perceptions of corruption—not far from a handful of infamously corrupt failed states like Iraq, Afghanistan and the Congo.

Activists have pinned their hopes on the RTI Act, but it’s clear that the mere existence of the law is an insufficient deterrent to government corruption: it has been crippled all too easily by ineffective information commissioners, evasive bureaucrats, and an overall lack of support and political will from the Centre.

T O STRIKE UP A CONVERSATION with the group of activists sitting before him, Manish Sisodia emphasised the importance of the Hindi word ‘namaste.’ “Before meeting someone,” Sisodia told the assembled group, “one should always say namaste. That way we start liking one another.”

Sisodia, a khadi-wearing man in his late 30s, was addressing a workshop as part of a three-day programme in New Delhi for RTI activists organised by an NGO called Kabir. The aim of the workshop, which took place in September, was to strengthen the “RTI brotherhood”—part of a campaign by RTI activists to spread awareness about the law to encourage its use and, they hope, to provide a kind of safety in numbers. When more citizens are engaged in filing RTI applications, their thinking goes, it will be harder for guilty parties to retaliate with violence.

Fifty activists from different states of India sat in a semicircle around an oval table and listened to Sisodia talk about the power and the success of RTI. “Even the big ministers, Supreme Court judges, had no option but to declare their assets,” Sisodia said. When he asked the activists how many of them had succeeded in obtaining information from government offices, only two hands rose. “Not a problem,” Sisodia said calmly. “That is why we’ve gathered here.”

He took a step back, stood with his hands on his hips, chest thrust forward, and smiled at the activists. Then he asked them if anyone knew about the magic questions. Like a man proud of his skills, he quickly ran through four questions: “What action has been taken? Who is dealing with the case? How much time as per the policy it should take? Since the policy is violated, any departmental inquiry against the violator?”

The four magic questions have worked well so far. Sisodia explained the importance of clarity, lucidity and focus while writing RTI applications. “Don’t be emotional in your questions,” he told the activists. “Thousands of applications are dumped because people ask questions like ‘Sir, why is your department corrupt?’”

Sisodia has been working as an activist for five years; he was among the nine social activists selected by Aruna Roy to help draft the RTI Act, and he’s now working to assemble a database of all the RTI activists in the country in an effort to keep an eye on their activities and protect them from harm. “We don’t want to lose our men,” Sisodia told me. “When you kill one, you threaten thousands.”

In the wake of the killings of RTI activists throughout 2010, the government has argued along similar lines. Speaking at the annual RTI convention at Vigyan Bhawan in September, the then Chief Information Commissioner Wajahat Habibullah said that “the RTI brotherhood needs to develop a defensive mechanism” to deal with continuing threats. For the activists, there may be no choice, but the government has few such excuses: at the very least, the expansion of an ‘RTI brotherhood’ will require a substantial investment in campaigns to increase awareness about the law, whose details are unknown to the vast majority of Indians. “Even educated people don’t know how to write RTI applications,” said Anupama Jha, the executive director of Transparency International India.

For activists facing abuse and harassment at the hands of government officers, police, or local mafias, the simple act of strengthening the ‘RTI brotherhood’ is unlikely to provide safety. Shiv Prakash Rai, a farmer from Bihar’s Buxar district, can testify to the mixed results of the RTI law: it has empowered ordinary citizens to demand answers from their government, but it cannot by itself erase the vast gulf in power that separates a district magistrate from a poor farmer.

In the summer of 2005, Rai was facing a brutal drought on his seven acres of farmland, but he was left waiting more than a year for a government subsidy worth 9,000 rupees that he needed to set up a hand pump to irrigate his fields. His crops died, and the subsidy never materialised. At this point, a group of RTI activists from Delhi visited Buxar, and helped him write an application, which contained three questions: How many farmers have received the subsidy? Where did you purchase the material from? Please produce the bills.

On 19 December 2006, Rai went to the district magistrate’s office to file his first RTI application. A month passed without any response, and Rai filed a first appeal with the public information officer—the official responsible for releasing information from the district magistrate’s office. Another month passed without any answer, and Rai filed his second appeal, in accordance with the law, to the state information commission—which has the authority to impose fines on government officers who refuse to disclose information.

The information commission in Patna accepted Rai’s appeal. The district magistrate in Buxar, Vishnu Prasad Singh, was summoned by the court, which asked him to release the information immediately or face a penalty—which can range, under the terms of the law, from 500 to 25,000 rupees for each day that the information continues to be withheld. Back in Buxar, however, Singh laid a trap: he invited Rai into his office, and greeted him warmly, standing up and giving the farmer a hug and a pat on the back. Rai was given a cup of tea and presented with a blank sheet of paper. “He asked me to sign it,” Rai told me as he sat on a wooden trunk in his two-room concrete apartment in Buxar.

“I refused to sign,” Rai said. He smiled at Singh in an attempt to soften him up, but he believes that signing the blank page was a ruse that would have enabled Singh to provide the information commission with Rai’s signature stating that the information had indeed been released. “That way the commission would’ve closed my case,” Rai said.

After Rai refused further entreaties to sign the paper, he said, Singh called his secretary and said something in English—which Rai couldn’t understand. A few minutes later, a group of police officers, including a few with stars on their shoulders, entered the room and grabbed Rai by his collar; he was dragged down the stairs, crammed into a police vehicle, and taken to jail. As he was driven away, Rai told me, he felt ridiculous for having challenged the government and its officers. “I thought maybe it would have been better to have stayed away from all these hassles,” he said.

Rai was jailed on a charge of demanding a bribe from a government officer. But a police investigation found no evidence of attempted extortion, and Rai was released after 29 days in prison. Singh, who refused to comment when contacted about the incident, was transferred in a typical bureaucratic reshuffle and faced no penalty. After his exit, however, responses to RTI applications began to emerge from the magistrate’s office—and when Rai received his response, he realised a massive fraud was underway.

His application had sought the bills to verify material purchased under the government’s Million Wells Scheme, and the magistrate’s office had provided invoices from seven different shops for a total of 121,800 rupees. But Rai, who knew his district by heart—village by village, shop by shop—wasn’t fooled: the shops named on the bills didn’t exist at all.

After a few months, Bihar’s vigilance department confirmed that the shops were fictitious. Now Rai is seeking more bills from the district magistrate, and he estimates the total cost of the scam to be almost 10 million rupees. “My RTI proved me right,” he said, pointing his finger toward the sky. “It gave me freedom.”

After his initial victory, Rai began filing applications about other local developmental schemes as well. He still regards himself as a farmer, but if someone calls him an activist, he simply nods his head and smiles. His case has now entered its fourth year, and he has appeared 48 times before the information jury.

As cases before the information commission drag out without resolution—and without penalties levied on the officials who fail to provide information—the threats against activists mount. “I get phone calls,” Rai said. “They ask me to withdraw the case.” The callers are anonymous, Rai said, but their threats are real. He isn’t afraid, he told me. But he can’t understand why the commission doesn’t impose fines on officials to force the release of the information. “What is taking them so long?” he asks.

AS MY TRAIN FROM DELHI pulled into Patna Railway Station, a crowd of children ran toward the platform, pushing at one another to get close to the open doors of the arriving train in the hope of finding some food inside. A railway staffer opened the door of the last compartment, and tossed a few plastic bags of leftover food to the crowd of scrawny children—looking every bit like an ancient king tossing coins to his subjects; the children pounced on the bags and tore them apart.

Outside, the city of Patna was a deafening chorus of horns, with traffic struggling to move on its crowded streets; bony-faced men in tight pants and shirts and lean, sari-clad women walked down the busy streets, past rows of temporary shacks covered with colourful plastic tarps. A rickshaw-puller told me that the city looks just like it did 50 years ago, but changes are evident: in the past decade, the city has mushroomed with shopping malls, drab new buildings, glittering temples and statues of India’s freedom fighters. 

Away from the crowds, on the southwestern edge of the city, lies the office of the Chief Information Commissioner of Bihar, AK Choudhary. He sits on the fourth floor of a tall building, his chamber at the end of a long 0corridor. A bespectacled man in his early 60s with pitch-black hair, Choudhary retired in 2008 as the Chief Secretary of Bihar—the state’s top administrator, who works closely with the chief minister. He was appointed as the information commissioner shortly thereafter.

Choudhary was happy to discuss the RTI Act, but cautious in his answers: as the state’s top official overseeing compliance with the RTI Act, Choudhary was appointed to his post by Bihar Chief Minister, Nitish Kumar, and he was not eager to criticise any aspect of the state government.

“People have not understood this act,” Choudhary said, sitting in his spacious office. There was a copy of Forbes magazine and a bunch of books lying on his table. “There is lack of awareness on people’s as well as on the government’s side.” This lack of awareness, of course, is not limited to Bihar: a 2008 survey conducted by the Society for Participatory Research in Asia found that in most districts, information about public information officers—to whom requests must be filed—“was simply not available.” Even among applicants who could find the public information officer, the survey found 40 percent of them reported having had to make between two and five visits to file a request.

But spreading awareness is not Choudhary’s job. His job is to summon information officers who refuse to disclose records before the commission, and he has the power to impose penalties on officers who violate the law. But his 40 years of bureaucratic experience, he told me, has taught him that it never pays to put pressure on lower-ranking officers by imposing fines. “The officers will get angry,” he said, “and they will find other ways to defeat this law.” Since 2006, in fact, Choudhary’s office has received 40,000 appeals, each pertaining to an officer who has denied information to an applicant. Over that period it has levied only 400 fines. “Suspension, departmental action, or fines,” Choudhary said, creasing his forehead, “we don’t require them.”

But PK Narayanan, who also sits on Bihar’s information commission, took issue with Choudhary’s approach to enforcement. Sitting in his own office, a small room adjacent to that of the chief commissioner, Narayanan expressed his disillusionment. “We are powerless,” he told me, and said that even rulings to penalise uncooperative information officers were routinely appealed in the Patna High Court. The law does not allow the information commission to suspend an official for misconduct; Narayanan can only recommend that the government initiate a departmental inquiry against officers who refuse to comply with the law. But in Bihar, he told me, even that has only been done three times.

Where Choudhary suggested that politicians have supported the law and downplayed the threats against activists, Narayanan argued that politicians should be held responsible for delaying the release of information, and citing the danger facing activists seeking information from the government. When I brought up Shashidhar Mishra’s murder with Choudhary, he demurred and suggested that the killing was unrelated to RTI before declining to comment further.

In September, the Bihar Human Rights Commission released a report on the continued harassment of RTI activists. Sachchidanand Jha, who heads the commission, had asked the government to suspend 54 officers found to be harassing RTI applicants. “No action has been taken,” Jha told me, with a look of resignation. A retired Chief Justice, of Jammu and Kashmir and Rajasthan, Jha argues that government officers are making things difficult for RTI activists, whether by delaying the release of information or openly abusing the applicants. “Everyone wants a free deal,” Jha said. “Even your child hates questions.”

Inside the bureaucracy, however, there is exasperation concerning the RTI Act itself, and the perceived burden on the officers responsible for dispensing records. “People want tonnes of information,” said Deepak Kumar, the Principal Secretary of Bihar. “They don’t want one or two pieces of paper, they want the whole document. How is it possible to photocopy thousands of pages? We don’t have that much money.” Kumar, a soft-spoken Indian Administrative Service officer in his 50s, argued that a surplus of applications was causing the delays in processing.

A series of surveys, however, has found that the burden on administrators has not yet grown unmanageable; the workload created by RTI, in the words of one report, “does not appear to be as Herculean as people have been made to believe,” while another report by a committee of central and state information commissioners in 2009 concluded that officers were not facing an overwhelming volume of “useless demands and complaints.”

Even if this were the case, the RTI Act was designed to avoid a situation in which information officers were forced to deal with an excess of requests for routine information about budgets and expenditures. Section 4 of the act, perhaps its most important provision, requires that every public authority must ensure all its records are maintained and digitised for ease of access—by posting them on the internet, for example. But this requirement, for voluntary disclosures, has not been implemented anywhere in the country, even five years after the law’s passage.

WAJAHAT HABIBULLAH, who served as the Central Information Commissioner of India until September 2009, admitted that the law has not delivered on its promise. “RTI started in the right direction,” he told me. “But the results are not satisfactory. It’s because the records are inaccessible that the government officers have begun to complain of heavy workload.”

Aruna Roy, who may rightly be regarded as the mother of RTI, expressed a similar disappointment. “The law’s most important section,” she wrote via email, referring to Section 4, “has been neglected in total.” “The government machinery,” Roy said, “has continuously argued that RTI has burdened the system without even sharing information with the public.” At the same time, Roy argued, “instead of strengthening the law, there have been attempts to dilute it” by placing certain types of information beyond its reach. “Citizens are beginning to understand and use RTI,” she concluded, “and there is no doubt that such uses of the law are what has compelled the government to attempt to amend the act.”

Given the fanfare with which the law was initially passed—and its pride of place in the 2004 Congress campaign—the government has spent surprisingly little on raising awareness among the public. According to figures from the Department of Personnel and Training (DoPT), which is responsible for training government officers to implement the law and for educating the public on its provisions, a paltry 60 million rupees has been spent on both these tasks since the law’s passage. (The government’s 2010-11 budget, by comparison, is 1,111.87 trillion rupees.)

But when I contacted Rajeev Kapoor, who heads the DoPT, to ask about funding for RTI awareness, he said he didn’t feel more money was necessary. “It’s not a question of more money being spent,” he responded by email. “It is more a question of better utilisation of resources to create more awareness about the use of the Act and improving governance through activities like better record keeping.”

From RTI activists one hears a litany of complaints about the law’s ineffective implementation—ranging all the way from the obstinacy of local bureaucrats to the absence of political will in New Delhi to enforce the act’s provisions. The state information commissioners, as activists are quick to observe, are themselves mostly former politicians or bureaucrats—23 of the 27 commissioners are retired government officers, three are retired judges, and one is a policeman—and the appointment of information commissioners remains under the control of each state’s chief minister in consultation with the leader of the opposition party. The law does not prevent social activists from being appointed to these positions—but it’s hard to imagine any state’s political leaders granting such power to a person eager and willing to challenge the government and its officers.

Despite having passed the landmark law to begin with, the Congress party has come under suspicion from the activist community for its apparent indifference to the many problems that have since arisen; the efforts at the Centre to weaken the law, from both the Prime Minister’s Office and the DoPT, have hardly inspired confidence in the Congress’s commitment to RTI.

When I put these questions to Mani Shankar Aiyar, a senior Congress leader and Former Union Sports Minister, who is well-known for his public stands against government corruption, he mounted a spirited defence of the party’s record—it was the Congress, after all, that had the courage to pass the act.   

“Our performance has been remarkable so far,” Aiyar told me as we sat in the study at his official residence in Safdarjung Enclave. “We gave a normal right to people to access information, which has been denied by the bureaucracy and, to some extent, by politicians.”

For Aiyar, the Congress has already demonstrated its political will by making the RTI into law. Now, he argues, the resistance to its implementation is coming only from the bureaucracy. When I asked him, however, what the Congress was doing to reduce that bureaucratic resistance, he narrowed his eyes and looked at me warily. “We’ve given powers to the information commissioners,” he said. “What else is there for the government to do?”

I observed that thousands of appeals were still held up before information commissions, Aiyar said, “This question you should ask to those commissions.” During his own tenure as Minister of Sports and Youth Affairs, he added, there had been no problems in complying with the RTI Act. “I don’t recall ever having had to make a decision with respect to the law,” he said.

No other political parties have argued for the law to be strengthened, and while few political leaders want to be seen as opponents of the law, all of them seem happy for it to remain in its current limping state. The Congress appears largely content to leave the law alone, though Sonia Gandhi has publicly resisted efforts to remove more information from its purview. In a letter to Manmohan Singh dated 1 November 2009, the Congress president—aware of efforts by bureaucrats and top Congress leaders to amend the law—asked the prime minister not to make any changes to the act. “It is important,” Gandhi wrote, “that we adhere strictly to its original aims and refrain from accepting or introducing changes...that would dilute its purpose.” Instead of amending the law, Gandhi argued, the government needed to work to strengthen its implementation and address the “lack of training of government staff.” “There is also a problem,” she wrote, “with a public lack of awareness of the RTI and the harassment of applicants.”

The apparent backing of the country’s most powerful woman, however, is cold comfort to RTI activists, who see few signs that the government intends to address the problems Gandhi observed. After five years, the law has indeed delivered a right to know to innumerable ordinary citizens, but it has also delivered too many activists to a violent end. Delays in the bureaucratic response provide an opportunity for ‘vested interests’ to plan and carry out violence against activists—and as the case of Shashidhar Mishra makes clear, many of these assaults are then neglected by local police, who have little incentive to prioritise the security of RTI activists.

AT THE POLICE STATION IN PULWARIA, where Mishra was killed, officers told me that there was no case history for the investigation of the murder, which has been treated as an ordinary killing. The murder, I was told, had nothing to do with RTI or with Mishra’s applications—though the RTI applications in question had been allegedly seized from his house by the police after Mishra’s death.

At the headquarters of the Bihar police in Patna—a red brick structure built by the British—the officers were busy making security arrangements for the upcoming state elections. PK Thakur, Bihar’s Additional General of Police, arrived at the office in the late afternoon; instead of the usual khaki uniform, he was wearing a short-sleeved shirt, with a glittering Rado watch on his strong forearms. “I have not come across any case of harassment,” Thakur said, stubbing out a cigarette, in response to a question about the safety of RTI activists.

“Somehow the people feel that with RTI they can get officers punished; you get information, but that doesn’t mean you can ask why there hasn’t been any action taken against an officer. That is wrong.”

Thakur, who was clearly not interested in having this particular conversation, summoned his deputy in charge of human rights and legal affairs, Ravindran Shankaran, who also serves as the public information officer for the Bihar police, to ask him about issues related to RTI. Shankaran came into the room, and after saluting Thakur, quietly took a chair. Thakur asked him about the number of RTI applications the police department had received since the act was introduced. “Until now we have 1,888, sir,” Shankaran replied, in a thick Tamil accent.

I asked Shankaran how many applicants had sent their cases in appeal to the state information commissioner, but Thakur gave a quick and curt reply.  “All the information has been given out,” he said. Moving to more comfortable territory, Thakur began to praise Neelmani, the Director General of of Police in Bihar, for having reduced crime in the state. “Sir only addresses press conferences,” Thakur said proudly. “For the rest of the time, I take care of the media.”

Before leaving, I asked Thakur about the murder of Shashidhar Mishra. For the first time he fumbled with his words: he leaned back on his chair, looked up, and began chewing his lower lip. He was trying to recall the case, but after a brief pause he said, simply, “That murder has nothing to do with RTI.” He leaned forward and placed his elbows on the desk. “I cannot tell you more about this case,” he said. “It’s election time and we are not allowed to talk to the press.”    

Mehboob Jeelani is a former staff writer at The Caravan. He is currently studying for an MA in journalism at Columbia University.

ON THE EVENING of 12 February 2010, Shashidhar Mishra returned to his village, Phulwaria, after another day spent selling biscuits and sweets on the roads of Begusarai district in northern Bihar. The broken roads in the village were badly lit, but Mishra knew the place so well that the bicycle he dragged, loaded with his wares, lacked a headlight. As Mishra approached the small bylane leading to his house, however, a power cut cast the road into darkness.

Some 200 metres away Mishra’s brother, Mahinder, lit a candle to attend to a final customer at his small grocery shop. A few minutes later, a long-bearded sadhu entered the shop. “I stumbled upon a body outside your house,” the sadhu whispered in his ear. Mahinder bolted from the shop, leaving his customer behind. He ran by his instincts—rushing past a cluster of shops, turning swiftly through the narrow lanes, jumping over an open drain—and arrived at his doorstep to find his brother dead on the ground, blood still seeping from his head.

“It was a pistol shot,” Mahinder told me when I visited Pulwaria in October. The identity of Shashidhar’s killer remains unknown, and Mahinder believes the police have failed to pursue the investigation. Mahinder, a dark-skinned man in his 20s with a stiff face and dense stubble, has little faith the murder will ever be solved—the village’s politicians and pradhans, he told me, have taken no interest in the case. As we spoke, Mahinder’s mother, Sushila Devi, squatted nearby on the floor, leaning against the damp wall of their mud house. At her hip she held Shashidhar’s 14-month-old son, who played with a corrugated key dangling from her neck like an amulet.

This, Mahinder believes, is literally the key to his brother’s murder: it opens a room where the family has stashed a dozen Right to Information (RTI) applications filed by Shashidhar shortly before his death. His final inquiries, they tell me, were directed to the local police.

Shashidhar Mishra, a compact 32-year-old who spent his entire life in Pulwaria, worked as a street vendor, bicycling to nearby villages to sell biscuits and chocolates; his family and neighbours remembered him as a sharp-witted man who was renowned for his command of written Hindi, despite having failed to complete middle school. Before setting out on his rounds every morning, he stopped at the District Magistrate’s office to deposit an envelope at the public information counter—question after question addressed to the district’s bureaucrats and administrators.

In 2005, the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government introduced India’s first Right to Information Act, an anti-corruption measure that was intended to provide citizens access to records and documents kept by local and central authorities. Applicants submit questions attached to a simple form—to request, for example, that the government prove that the money allotted to national welfare schemes has been properly spent—and the relevant agency is obliged to provide answers.

The RTI law gave hundreds of millions of Indians the ability to hold the country’s vast bureaucracy to account, and, it was hoped, to arrest the endemic corruption in its ranks. Prior to 2005, government documents and records were covered by the Official Secrets Act 1923, inherited from the Raj, whose protections were often misused to hide evidence of bribes, kickbacks and nepotism. The RTI law had been a central plank of the Congress campaign in the 2004 general elections, and its passage, after a decade of agitation by good-government activists, appeared at first to herald a new era of transparency and accountability. The law’s impact was felt almost immediately, by low-ranking bureaucrats and top national officials alike: Prime Minister Manmohan Singh disclosed his assets and those of his cabinet ministers in response to an RTI application.

Shashidhar Mishra filed his first RTI application in 2008—by the time he died, Mahinder told me, he had submitted more than 1,000. His inquiries usually concerned issues troubling the villagers of Pulwaria: he sought information about how his panchayat spent its funds; he asked local health officers to explain why their dispensary lacked basic medical supplies; he asked the police to explain how they dealt with the vehicles recovered from thieves. One of Mishra’s applications led to the removal of an illegally constructed dairy stall at the Begusarai railway station; another, according to an account in a local newspaper, exposed a local mafia that sold contaminated water in mineral water bottles.

Mishra’s inquiries were wide-ranging, directed at local contractors, pradhans, politicians, bureaucrats and police. As word of his RTI applications began to spread, other villagers sought his help in filing their own applications, waiting along his bicycle route to ask his advice and assistance. In the course of his own applications, Mishra had become well-versed in the workings of local government, and shared this information freely with anyone who asked: villagers soon began to call him ‘Khabri Lal’—the newsman.

Mahinder Mishra feels certain Shashidhar was killed for his attempts to hold local powers to account: after the murder, Mahinder told me, the police “searched the house and seized most of the RTI forms.” “The electricity goes off, the killers shoot at him, and the gunshot is not heard,” Mahinder said. “How can I accept there isn’t any powerful hand involved?”

ON 27 JANUARY 1996, a raid on a government office in southern Bihar uncovered evidence of what was—at least by the now-quaint standards of 15 years ago—one of India’s most shocking corruption scandals, the Bihar Fodder Scam. For more than 20 years, a series of state officials from multiple political parties, in coordination with dozens of senior bureaucrats, had siphoned off an estimated ten billion rupees from the treasury by fabricating vast numbers of imaginary livestock and stealing funds allotted for their care and feeding. The scam, which landed the then Bihar Chief Minister Lalu Prasad Yadav in jail—albeit briefly—revealed a crooked nexus of politicians, senior bureaucrats and businessmen, and triggered a widespread national debate on corruption.

The Fodder Scam, splashed across the headlines month after month, lent new momentum to an existing movement of activists and advocacy groups for transparency in local governance. The National Campaign for People’s Right to Information (NCPRI) was formed by a group of activists, lawyers, journalists and academics later that year, and produced a draft Right to Information law that was sent to the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government—which declined to act on the proposal for four years, and eventually signed a very weak Freedom of Information Act only in 2002, though the NCPRI successfully pushed for state-level RTI Acts in Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra and several other states.

When the Congress party retooled its campaign platform for the 2004 general elections—reverting to the old party slogan, Congress Ka Haath Aam Aadmi Key Saath (Congress is with the common man)—it promised the introduction of a more ‘progressive, participatory and meaningful’ Right to Information act. To draft such legislation, the Congress president, Sonia Gandhi, turned to Aruna Roy, a Magsaysay Award-winning activist who had spearheaded some of the first local RTI efforts in Rajasthan in the early 1990s. Roy joined the newly created National Advisory Council, which produced a new draft RTI law at the end of 2004.

But the path to the passage of a robust RTI Act was far from over: even under the auspices of a friendly government, the bill met opposition from the Law Ministry, which stripped the proposed legislation of numerous key elements before returning it to parliament—limiting its scope to the national government, for example, and eliminating the provision for penalising officials who refused to provide information requested by the public.

Roy confronted Sonia Gandhi over the crippled bill—and threatened to resign from NAC if it was passed in its weakened form. She sought similar assurances from Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who assured Roy that he would support the original draft.

After Singh’s intervention, a parliamentary committee reviewed the bill and proposed 187 recommendations to restore strength to the law, which was then re-introduced in parliament. After 15 minutes of discussion, the House agreed on all but one of the amendments, rejecting the stipulation that information commissioners would have only 30 days to respond to each request for information; instead, the commissioners, who have power to impose penalties on recalcitrant officials, were given an unlimited amount of time to handle appeals. On 12 October 2005, the law was passed in parliament to great fanfare. Manmohan Singh claimed that the RTI Act would herald the beginning of a new era and “eliminate the scourge of corruption.”

Five years later, it’s safe to say that the scourge of corruption remains, perhaps more powerful than ever. “This law has faced tough resistance right from the beginning,” said Arvind Kejriwal, an activist who helped lead the movement for RTI. “Every party and every bureaucrat has tried to weaken this law. They don’t want to give up their power to hide information from the public.” A former civil service officer who resigned from his post at the income tax office to protest the rampant corruption he saw there, Kejriwal received the Magsaysay Award in 2006 in recognition of his contribution to the RTI movement and his work against corruption. “By passing the law,” he told me, “politicians have dug their own graves. They know it, and they are finding ways to weaken it.”

READER'S COMMENTS [6]

The flaws in the RTI that have been revealed must be dealt accordingly Also campaigns must be carried out in schools, colleges, and at panchayat level to make people aware

This is brilliant. From murders to background to the current issues, all the elements have been covered. Good luck Caravan!

very good write up. i think i want to have some parts of this story for my upcomming film? kindly let me know.thanks.

Brilliant article. The people in the story are common people and these are the ones the media should focus on rather than giving space to politicians and bureaucrats. Thanks for such a well-written, well-reported article.

Dear Editor.,Thanks for comming up with such a detailed narrative. I enjoyed the story very much. But I think the most important element on RTI corruption is missing in the stroy that is how politicians are backing the bureaucrats to hide the information. Would have loved to read about this aspect. Cheers!

Powerful narrative.It gives a detailed outlook. Would have loved to read more on lok pal bill though. but still i must say the piece is really good.

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