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Last Updated: Tuesday, 14 November 2006, 13:01 GMT
Information law lifts Indian poor
By Mark Dummett
BBC News, Delhi

Noshe Ali, resident of a Delhi slum
The law helped Noshe Ali discover that no development was planned
For two decades the people of Sunder Nagri, on the north-east edge of the Indian capital, Delhi, had to make do without sewers.

As the alleyways and backyards of their slum festered, local officials kept making and breaking promises to clean things up.

Then, local businessman Noshe Ali decided to take matters into his own hands.

Using a new law that forces the authorities to disclose information, he discovered what everyone in Sunder Nagri had already guessed - that there were no plans to dig any sewers.

Armed with this knowledge, he persuaded the Indian capital's chief minister to authorise a budget, and work started within a year.

"This place used to be really dirty. There were lots of mosquitoes and many people caught disease. Now things are quite different," Noshe Ali said.

Desire for change

The government brought in the Right to Information (RTI) law last year to open the opaque world of the civil service up to public scrutiny.

It is a revolutionary act... It changes the power balance in favour of the people
Former civil servant Arvind Kejriwal

"Within government there is a desire to bring about change, to bring about greater transparency," says Wajahat Haibullah, the head of the Central Information Commission, which oversees implementation of the law.

For a fee of 10 rupees, Indians can now ask the government for information on almost anything.

It has been enthusiastically welcomed by members of some of India's poorest communities who complain that for years they have been ignored by lazy, inefficient and corrupt bureaucrats.

In Sunder Nagri, most families scrape a living from the textiles industry.

Usha, the resident of a Delhi slum
Though Usha did not get information, she got the certificates

Men work heavy wooden handlooms squeezed into dusty rooms, and the women sit on the pavements outside, spinning cotton on old bicycle wheels.

It is not just work on large infrastructure projects like sewer lines that they want to speed up.

They are often made to wait for simple things like passports, driving licenses, electricity and water connections - or pay a bribe.

Usha, for example, was asked to hand over 800 rupees ($20) for birth certificates for her two daughters.

"They were asking for money from me, but we hardly have enough to even feed ourselves," Usha said.

Revolutionary act

Instead of paying bribes, she used the RTI to find out what was delaying her application, and which official was responsible.

Rather than disclose that information, she was called into the local government office and given the birth certificates.

"It is a revolutionary act," says Arvind Kejriwal, a former civil servant, who founded a grass-roots movement, Parivartan (Change), to champion the right to information.

"It changes the power balance in favour of the people."

A woman weaver in a Delhi slum
Delhi's poor weavers have held bureaucracy to account

Another resident of Sunder Nagri, Radha, alleges that she waited two years for a ration card, which entitles her to subsidised food.

During that time she says someone else was using it illegally.

"After I filed an RTI application the ration card arrived within days," she said.

Mr Kejriwal and a network of media organisations and NGOs are now trying to spread awareness of the law from India's cities to its rural areas where a large proportion of government development funds is either wasted or stolen.

New addiction

"We are going around the country telling people they no longer have to pay bribes in India," Arvind Kejriwal says.

He warns, though, that some within government want to reduce the powers of the act.

In August the cabinet considered an amendment which would prevent disclosure of some comments scribbled on the side of files, but shelved the plan after nationwide protests.

Even without the amendments, activists admit it will take a long time to genuinely open up the civil service.

But a growing number of Indians are beginning to enjoy their new powers.

"When someone learns to use RTI, he almost becomes addicted to it," Arvind Kejriwal says. "It is so powerful, it empowers the very ordinary citizen in a tremendous way."


SEE ALSO
Indians find information too costly
13 Mar 06 |  South Asia
Indians win right to information
12 Oct 05 |  South Asia

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