To what extent can tools like the Right to Information (RTI) help ensure transparency and accountability? This article from the IDS Bulletin draws on the example of Parivartan, a Delhi-based citizens’ group working on issues of corruption and accountability. This group has used the RTI to mobilise poor people and has used information to generate awareness through the media, holding government to account. The combination of a dedicated grassroots activist organisation and a RTI Act was necessary for achieving successful accountability.
India’s poor have been denied basic rights and necessities through lies and corruption. Many see the RTI as a tool to ensure transparency and accountability in government, but others doubt its effectiveness. Parivartan spearheaded the use of the RTI to expose corruption in government-run programmes in urban areas. The Public Distribution System (PDS) is a government programme for ensuring that affordable grain is available for the poor. It has been criticised for its inability to serve the poorer population and lack of transparent and accountable delivery.
Parivartan’s Delhi campaign in 2001 mobilised residents to make use of the RTI to access information on the implementation of the PDS. This led to the institutionalisation of public scrutiny of the PDS.
- A low-income resident came to Parivartan after being unable to obtain her entitled food-grains from the PDS. Using the RTI, Pavaritan accessed records for fair price shops in the area and started mobilising neighbourhood residents.
- Parivartan organised a public hearing and over 300 people filed RTI applications to view their food-grain records. Despite legal challenges from fair price shop owners and threats against RTI applicants, Parivartan expanded their campaign.
- In three settlements where Parivartan had been working, 87 per cent of wheat and 94 per cent of rice under the PDS had been diverted and sold in the open market.
- Parivartan pushed for the institutionalisation of the system of public scrutiny of records. The Food Commissioner was sympathetic to public demands and a pilot scheme was scaled up to apply to all food and supply circles across Delhi.
- Two Saturdays of every month were designated for public viewing of food-grain records and lodging complaints. In the first few months, five shop owners were suspended.
There have been questions over the extent to which RTI can be used by poor and marginalised people due to the complexity of the legal process. The case of Parivartan is significant for a number of reasons:
- Parivartan’s campaign has not reformed the entire system of distribution and delivery under the PDS. But it has enabled the group to enter negotiations around public policy.
- The government’s role in creating spaces for social actors and groups to participate was crucial, and a sensitive bureaucracy also helped to produce results. However, if bureaucrats themselves had been implicated in the corruption and if the PDS had been one of the areas in which local politicians operated patronage structures, support may have been less forthcoming.
- The campaign has made only a small impact in a larger system. Problems of access, exclusion, corruption and mismanagement are still prevalent in the PDS, but the use of RTI has shown a way of dealing with these.
- There are signs that this institutionalisation of public scrutiny has led to the development of grassroots activism on a larger scale, but progress has been slow.
NB: Full text available online (via subscription access) at: Wiley InterScience