India, infamous for its bureaucracy and corruption, has one of the strongest freedom of information laws in the world. OTM reporter Jamie York went to India to talk to Subhash Agrawal, Nikhil Dey, Aruna Roy, Shailesh Gandhi and Sowmya Kidambi (and to hear Shankar Singh sing) about the struggle to achieve the law and the power and pitfalls of such a transformative tool.
BOB GARFIELD: On Independence Day, the Freedom of Information Act turned 47, and it is, in concept, a thing of beauty. But ask reporters who've waited years to get a request answered or gotten a document redacted nearly to death, and they might suggest that the law isn’t exactly living up to its potential. But, even if it falls short in practice, it does continue to inspire dozens of countries who have created their own transparency programs.
This summer, OTM Reporter Jamie York went to India, a relatively new adopter of what they call the right to information, to see how it's working in the world's largest democracy.
[SUBHASH AGRAWAL SPEAKING IN BACKGROUND]
JAMIE YORK: It’s a Tuesday in New Delhi, India, a balmy 100 degrees in late June, and Subhash Agrawal is where you’ll find him most days, in a municipal office complex, trying to fight corruption. He is using India's Right to Information or RTI laws. Today, he's targeting the local city planning agency that he believes has misappropriated funds.
SUBHASH AGRAWAL: Then it is necessary, in public interest, that your affairs should be transparent…
JAMIE YORK: Then, as is his habit, he returns to his house at the back of an alley in a very old part of town. India’s government is corrupt at every level, limited only by the creativity of the perpetrators. But Agrawal, a feisty man in his sixties, has developed a system for tackling that. He scours the newspaper for clues to government malfeasance.
SUBHASH AGRAWAL: Something fishy and suspicious.
JAMIE YORK: Then he make a ruckus. Agrawal holds the Guinness World Record for the most published letters to the editor. It's true. Agrawal’s mission began in earnest seven years ago, when he saw a presentation at his Rotary Club about the new RTI laws. Since then, he says, he's filed 6,000 requests for information, and he feeds what he finds to the press. It's his passion.
SUBHASH AGRAWAL: We decided not to have any child. Live for a better society, not for yourself. So, we do – my and my wife are totally devoted to the social cause. We have no – are we ever going to movies and going to outings and going on holidaying. No, I am a single-man army. I am an ordinary man, using RTI Act.
JAMIE YORK: That’s half true. Agrawal is an ordinary man, albeit one with an unusually patient wife and a Guinness World Record, but he's not a single-man army. There are millions of foot soldiers across India, filing information requests under a law that was created for them by them.
[INDIAN SINGER/UP AND UNDER]
That army was born here, in Rajasthan, a large state in India's northwest corner. It's hot, parched, rural. Twenty-seven years ago, three activists, one of them a Rajasthan native, moved to an isolated village here, vowing to live simply, like Mahatma Gandhi, and to identify and address the issue the community cared most about. Nikhil Dey, one of those activists, said it didn't take long to figure it out.
NIKHIL DEY:: So all, a single-crop area, so it’s rain-fed agriculture, so primarily one crop a year. If the rains fall at the right time, and otherwise there’s great – great vulnerability and possibilities of drought.
JAMIE YORK: And starvation, so when crops won’t grow, men leave the women and children and go in search of work, sending home pay, if they can.. The village women also needed work, and Dey’s organization, called the MKSS, fought for some promise of employment from the federal government.
After years of struggle, they won. The rural poor across India are now guaranteed 100 days a year of manual labor, whenever they need it, at minimum wage. It was a tremendous victory.
There was just one problem. Nikhil Dey.
NIKHIL DEY:: To make a very long story very short, they said why are we not getting our minimum wages? The answer was, well, you haven’t worked. And they would say, well, we worked eight hours, where have we not worked? So the answer was, measurements show you haven’t worked. So show us those measurements. And the answer was no, these are bills and vouchers and these are secret documents.
So people, while they were agitating, we went through two hunger strikes asking for minimum wages. They realized that the key to get that wage meant first getting those records out.
JAMIE YORK: Dey says it’s the poorest women, like these, who bear the brunt of corruption. A lack of information affects every part of their lives.
NIKKHIL DEY:: [HINDI] The right to know, the right to live. I cannot get my wage, unless I know. I cannot get my rations in the ration shop and my wheat, unless I know how much and when it’s come and who it’s gone to. I cannot get my medicines in the hospital, unless I know.
[ANTHEM SUNG/UP AND UNDER]
JAMIE YORK: So a group of poor rural women fought for their village records. This song is a kind of anthem, directions for listeners, many illiterate, on exactly how to file RTI requests. Local officials were in a bind. Refusing to release documents would make them appear corrupt. Complying would prove it. So they stalled. But as the community fought in the courts, the women acquired some of the relevant information.
NIKHIL DEY:: Not quite stealing, but as close to that as you could, copying down surreptitiously, and placed those records in front of the people and read them out.
JAMIE YORK: That was revolutionary. Armed with the documents, everyone, including the corrupt local officials, were invited to a public meeting.
[WOMAN SPEAKING AT MEETING]
NIKHIL DEY:: It’s your money, it’s your accounts, it’s your development. If you think it’s right, say so. If you think it’s wrong, what’s happened has not, in fact, taken place, say so. And that dramatically changed the dynamic in the entire area.
JAMIE YORK: Corrupt officials held two sets of books, one factual, one public. The public record showed that someone was paid when they weren't, or a road was built and paid for when it wasn't. Read that to the community, and it's bound to be challenged.
Now, 20 years later, the law requires that records be made public, so much so that in rural India today ledger books are literally painted on the walls, to be fact-checked by the community. Again, Nikkhil Dey.
NIKHIL DEY:: In Rajasthan, there’ll probably be 150,000 such walls. So let’s say I get a house under a housing program, or I get a job under the Employment Guarantee Program, it shows how much money I’ve received, how many days I’m supposed to have worked, it shows – So not only can I check my own, but everyone else walking by can check anyone else’s – oh, this guy actually is in Bombay, how come he’s shown as working here?
JAMIE YORK: After years of demonstrations, hunger strikes and sit-ins, this community's right to information demands were made law, in Rajasthan and then nationwide in 2005. Under the RTI law, anyone can request information from any government office or official. Most information is due within 30 days. Fines for late delivery are paid by the tardy official.
Now, millions of activists, like Subhash Agrawal – well, kind of like Subhash Agrawal – pursue information across India, but they risk their lives to do it. Especially in rural areas. Aruna Roy is another co-founder of Dey’s activist group, the MKSS.
ARUNA ROY: We have an overlay of democracy and democratic institutions on a feudal society, because we have a caste system which still operates.
JAMIE YORK: Which means, she says, that the people with the least had never felt able to question anything.
ARUNA ROY: So in this complex system, any questioning of the non-delivery of health - non-delivery of food services, non-delivery of wages, non-delivery of work, non-delivery of schools, non-delivery of anything at all - became a huge political issue. And it could end up in a kind of violence because it threatens the status quo.
JAMIE YORK: According to some RTI monitors, at least two dozen RTI activists were killed and almost a hundred were assaulted from 2005 to 2011, the last date that comprehensive records were kept. Many more have been threatened.
Though Aruna Roy and others in Rajasthan have been attacked, they say they never really felt threatened because of their numbers. But how do you protect millions of individuals across India? Shailesh Gandhi is an activist who, much to his surprise, was appointed to the commission that reviews RTI appeals in Mumbai. One of his first acts was to introduce whistleblower protections.
SHAILESH GANDHI: I said if any RTI user believes he’s been attacked or threatened or killed, unfortunately, because of use of an RTI, that person or, in the case he’s dead, his family, can approach the commission and see, vis-à-vis RTI, that somebody’s trying to get me off, and the commission would order that the information sought by such a person should be put on the website.
JAMIE YORK: But that mechanism works only if somebody has already been hurt or killed. There are tactics that can protect RTI filers in advance. Many people can file the same RTI application anonymously, or you can send it to someone in another state who files it from afar. In India, cell phone usage is almost universal, so RTI activists can also defend themselves by networking. Aruna Roy.
ARUNA ROY: The press of a button, everybody knows what’s going on. We know immediately that somebody’s been attacked. There are connects now between all of us and we speak for each other.
JAMIE YORK: All of these tactics can help shield RTI users, but with so much corruption buried in so many documents, can they really make a difference, one RTI request at a time?
[MUSIC UP AND UNDER]
The answer, if there is one, lies here in Andhra Pradesh. A rural state in India’s southeast, it’s the home of RTI activist Sowmya Kidambi. Here, the local government decided to apply an untested part of the national RTI law, the social audit. This state agreed to preemptively release all the information in a village, if Sowmya Kidambi would organize a team to check every last transaction. The government figured they'd catch some corrupt local officials. The local officials assumed that releasing fake records would get the rookies off their case.
SOWMYA KIDAMBI: And so they said, yeah, take the records. And I think I saw the cleanest pieces of paper. We started doing our verification, started taking these records to people and asking them, so your name’s on this master roll, did you work, did you get the money that’s been mentioned here? And they go, no, we haven’t worked even one day and we haven’t received this money.
JAMIE YORK: That’s what makes this a social audit, rather than merely a financial one. After demanding the records, Kidambi and her team go from every door to every door and visit every public work. There’s nowhere for corruption to hide.
SOWMYA KIDAMBI: We went and audited six civil works in about three villages. We found that in village after village, money that had been siphoned off was close to about 95 percent.
JAMIE YORK: In just the last four years, Kidambi and her team have conducted social audits across the state and uncovered billions in embezzled rupees. She’s organized an army of volunteers, young men and women 18, 19 years old, from the same impoverished class and dispossessed caste that bears the brunt of corruption.
SOWMYA KIDAMBI: Today, there are – while we talk – there are about 120 social audits taking place, across 22 provinces. So, so far in the last six years, we've trained more than 100,000 youths.
JAMIE YORK: Those youths are purposely sent to audit communities that aren’t their own. They arrive in a village en masse, and they have the backing of the state government. They've exposed plenty of corruption, but suffered no violence.
SOWMYA KIDAMBI: Why is it that we’ve not had even one person being killed or shot? Why is it that we’ve not had someone who’s been maimed or hit? It's because the state has stood there, and the minute you get even one threat, the government moves in, swoops under that person and says, you have no business doing this.
JAMIE YORK: Andhra Pradesh is the first state that's made a concerted effort to implement the social audit provision in the RTI law, and with a population of 85 million people, it stands as a success on a grand scale, so much so that the federal government is thinking about implementing the tactic nationwide.
While I was reporting this story. I kept hearing some version of this fable to make a point. The one from Rajasthan goes like this.
[SHANKAR SINGH SPEAKING]
A rich man is asleep at home and he’s awakened by a mouse running across his stomach. He begins to scream, waking everybody up. They come running and ask, why are you yelling? When he replies that a mouse ran over his stomach, they roll their eyes, that’s idiotic, it’s a mouse, get a grip. Nikhil Dey.
NIKHIL DEY:: So you don’t understand. Today the mouse ran. I am not worried about the mouse, I am worried about the snake that’s coming behind.
JAMIE YORK: In fact, this version was told to me on the floor of an earthen house, inherited when the last owner died of a snakebite. It's not an idle metaphor.
Activists use this story to explain the power of simple tactics, And in their telling, RTI is the snake.
NIKHIL DEY:: So why this entire system reacting when we are asking for something small? It’s because they recognize what’s coming next.
JAMIE YORK: In a new book, the Nobel Prize-winning Indian economist Amartya Sen tries to figure out why India has failed its poor. The reasons, he concludes, are legion. But one of the few hopes is RTI, especially when it's accompanied by the sharp bite of social audit.
[MUSIC UP AND UNDER]
It’s real power, he concludes, in the hands of the powerless. And it provokes. But, as Gandhi might have assured the activists, it also prevails. For On the Media, I’m Jamie York.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Recently, advocates of the RTI law won a sort of victory, or maybe a reprieve. India’s six national political parties had sought to amend the law, so they would be exempt from its mandates. But Vice President Rahul Gandhi, who’s running for prime minister, has increasingly opposed the move, and public opinion has forced the government to, once again, refer the bill to a standing committee of the Parliament, where it has remained for the duration of the monsoon season. That generally ends in September, so the argument is poised to begin again.
[SINGING/UP AND UNDER]
BOB GARFIELD: That’s it for this week’s show. On the Media was produced by Jamie York, Alex Goldman, PJ Vogt, Sarah Abdurrahman, Chris Neary and Laura Mayer. We had more help from Megan Teehan and Zac Spencer. And the show was edited – by Brooke. Our technical director is Jennifer Munson. Our engineers this week were Andrew Dunne and Justin Gerrish.
That was the last time we’ll read Jamie York’s name. He has been a producer at On the Media for ten years, and – he’s kind of a genius. He’s also a charmer, and we’re going to miss him.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But that’s not the last you’ll hear from him. He’s got another India piece for us, and he’ll be over at Radio Lab. Good luck, Jamie.
Katya Rogers is our Senior Producer. Jim Schachter is WNYC’s Vice President for News. Bassist composer Ben Allison wrote our theme. You can find us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter, and you should. Or check out our new Internet love child, TLDR, which offers daily posts and audio about the weirdness of the Internet, on our website, onthemedia.org. On the Media is produced by WNYC and distributed by NPR. I’m Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I’m Bob Garfield.