India’s budding democracy has dipped its toe into the digital waters, as the government launched a website allowing citizens to file Right To Information requests online. It digitises a popular legislative mechanism which forces public officials to release documents and files relating to ministerial and bureaucratic decisions and taxpayer spending. Over the past eight years the RTI has empowered citizens and fostered transparency, and the new website could spark a wave of government disclosures.
Curious and suspicious citizens can use the site to submit a request, submit an appeal for a request that has been rejected, and also track the status of their application. It’s a relatively simple website but represents a significant cultural shift for a country where bureaucrats zealously protect their role as power brokers and information gatekeepers, operating behind a wall of red-tape woven paper.
India earned its independence 66 years ago but it is in the past six years, since the RTI Act was launched in 2008, that citizen engagement has flourished. RTI applications have been used by citizens to expose corrupt politicians who co-opted apartments built for war veterans, and siphoned funds raised for the Indian Red Cross. A visually-impaired student even forced the Indian Institute of Management to disclose its selection criteria, after her application was rejected without explanation.
Sunil Abraham, founder of the Bangalore-based research group the Centre for Internet and Society, welcomed the new portal.
“We must congratulate the Ministry of Personnel, Public Grievances & Pensions for this critical accomplishment in the path towards greater transparency and accountability based on the RTI Act,” he said.
It has spawned an ecosystem of accountability. There are RTI activists probing the government on a range of issues and topics, and subsequently sharing this information with the media; there is a passionate discussion forum; and even an Android app.
But its reach will be limited in a country where internet penetration hovers around twenty percent. Also, there is no version of the site in Hindi, or any of the other local languages spoken by most disempowered Indians. The site won’t solve the problem of bureaucrats not complying with RTI requests and forcing applicants into a lengthy appeals process.
Abraham admitted the site’s effectiveness would also be limited by the government’s recent decision to exclude political parties — the cultivators of corruption in India — from the act.
“Greater transparency of the political parties would have been a key development to protecting our democracy,” Abraham said. “This was a missed opportunity. Even if the RTI Act did not apply in total, it would have been in the public interest if more disclosure of funding and other details were mandated for political parties.”
Last week, Chennai citizens protested over the decision to overrule the order by the RTI-arbiter, the Central Information Commission, which would have forced the major political parties to disclose their funding sources.
The protestors have more gatherings planned in the coming months.