Walk into a government department in the United States or many of the EU nations and ask to see some public records, and chances are high that you'll get a timely response. Access to government information in those nations is usually a hassle free affair, with Right to Information (RTI) laws seeing regular use. In itself this isn't so surprising. A better climate of public integrity has developed in these nations, and citizens and government are an equal part of it. The 'systems' are in place.

In India, on the other hand, access to government information is poor, and this is felt particularly for the tiers of government closer to home -- local and state. Nine states have their own Right to Information laws. There is a Central Freedom of Information law, but its rules have not yet been announced in part because of differences in views between Central officials and State governments on the Central law's impact on state RTI laws. The Supreme Court is currently hearing a PIL on the operationalizing the Central law, and has set a deadline of September 15 for the states to respond to the rules proposed by the Centre. Still, it is one thing for these laws themselves to be passed, and another for government accountability to be advanced in practice.

But recent developments in the country indicate that public access to information may have already begun improving.

In 2002, when Delhi based right-to-information pioneer Parivartan attempted to make that state's RTI law work, municipal officials rejected applications saying that their 'systems were not in place'. But Parivartan - an informal network of citizen activists - has led residents of several localities in Delhi with RTI applications, appeals and public meetings over public records. Directly as a result of this, in many localities, ration supplies for the poor, hitherto siphoned off, have improved and road works are following schedules and specifications.

One RTI application from Bangalore was rejected because the appellate authority wanted the concerned government department's refusal in writing, the precise absence of which had caused the appeal in the first place!
The designation of the Delhi Public Grievance Commission (PGC) as the independent appellate authority has helped. The PGC has been proactive and the procedure for filing an appeal with the PGC is a non-cumbersome affair. The PGC's appeals process also determines salary deduction penalties on errant officials. The law itself has been strategically used by citizens for improving services in their own areas. And despite allegations leveled at Parivartan, the network has been able to demonstrate its non-partisan nature.

The Delhi engagement has since moved towards operationalization of access to works records. A receptive state government has recently issued several directives to the municipal authorities. One is to make available the list of public works awarded every quarter at key locations. Another note orders contractors to display the basic details of every work onsite. Contractors now risk being blacklisted if they violate this order.

Karnataka's RTI law however, has been crippled by partial implementation. The state government has not notified designated officers in the departments to handle information requests. In one case, the state's Pollution Control Board has said that state's RTI law did not apply to it! Another RTI application from Bangalore was rejected at the state's final appellate authority, the Karnataka Apellate Tribunal (KAT) because the KAT wanted the concerned government department's refusal in writing, the precise absence of which had caused the appeal in the first place.

Despite this and other difficulties, Karnataka's citizens have not lagged behind in pressing and organizing. Amongst the simplest and yet most instructive uses of the RTI law in Bangalore has been the experience of S N Subramanya of Benson Town. This 73-year old retired PSU official used the RTI law to obtain a list of spillover works for two of the city's wards for 2003-4, compared this to the previous year's list of works, and found around 20 cases of works worth 43 lakh rupees that were completed and paid in 2002-03, but were also paid again in 03-04 with the money going to different contractors. (Pulikeshinagar ward, popl: 42000, area: 2 sq.km).

That the senior citizen was even able to get a works list in response to an RTI request is noteworthy. Second, the ability of citizens to zoom into the specifics of how and where their tax rupees have been pilfered away is better than the alternative - armchair discussions about corruption without detail.

But Karnataka is also seeing citizen organizing on access to information that does not rely on the RTI law, and yet has made it incumbent on local governments to disclose information. Janaagraha has been coordinating a regular works review process between residents associations of several Bangalore wards and officials. The PROOF campaign has turned Bangalore's municipality into a pioneer by making it publish its quarterly financial results and engaging with city administrators on the larger issues of the city's financial management.

It is likely that renewed pressure from the Supreme Court will help the Central FOI Act become operational soon.
 •  Parivartan, Delhi
 •  Janaagraha, Bangalore
 •  PROOF, Bangalore
In the meantime, at the national level, it is likely that renewed pressure from the Supreme Court will help the Central FOI law become operational soon. Some activists are concerned that if both Central and state laws operate, it will cause abundant confusion at the local level, which will work to the advantage of officials who prefer to go slow on change. In part this because of the differences in the laws themselves, with the Central law being weaker than many state laws. This is particularly worrying active citizens in Delhi and Maharashtra, where there have been real signs of progress.

The spread of experiences in Karnataka and Delhi are pointers to the multiple gaps that need plugging. In most advanced nations with higher public integrity, RTI alone has not led to the development of better governance. Ultimately, RTI becomes a systemic check to keep an otherwise responsive system from deteriorating. Still, there can be no backing away from the need for an effective RTI system in India. To that end, a beginning has been made, now that citizens and government have already begun thinking differently about each other on questions of access to information.