The New York Times has been reporting on how open public records laws are being enlisted in the fight against governmental corruption – not here in the United States – but on the other side of the world, in rural India. In 2005, India joined a growing list of developing countries to enact a national open public records law, known as the Right to Information Act (“RIA”). The legislation’s preamble asserted that “democracy requires an informed citizenry and transparent information” and identified curbing governmental corruption as a central goal of the RIA. The RIA requires governmental agencies to respond to citizen requests for information within 30 days of receiving a request. Similar to Washington’s Public Records Act, 42.56 R.C.W., and the federal Freedom of Information Act, 5 U.S.C. § 551-559, governmental agencies that fail to comply with information requests are subject to daily penalties.
In 2010, the New York Times reported on how the RIA was leveling the playing field between corrupt governmental bureaucrats and India’s poor. Right-To-Know Law Gives India’s Poor a Lever, New York Times, June 28, 2010. The piece included a number of stories illustrating how India’s poorest citizens used the RIA to spur governmental bureaucrats into action. One story involved an impoverished mother of three who had been waiting for four years to receive a housing assistance grant. After seeing her well-to-do neighbors receive grants ahead of her, the mother used the RIA to request records detailing who had received grants in her community and why. Days after submitting the request, governmental officials approved her grant. In another village, community members became fed up with a public health care worker who rarely showed up to staff the community health clinic. The citizens utilized the RIA to request copies of the clinic’s attendance records. With her attendance record revealed, the health care worker started showing up every day. Success stories like these have provided hope to good governance advocates that India is moving in the direction of open and transparent government.
However, on January 22, 2011, the New York Times published a follow-up story showing how opponents of open government have begun using violence to intimidate and silence requesters. High Price for India’s Information Law, New York Times, January 22, 2011. The article described one case where a requester was murdered after uncovering evidence about an illegal mining operation that may have involved government officials. The author estimated that at least a dozen requesters have been murdered since the RIA was enacted in 2005 and scores of others have been beaten and harassed. This violence is apparently having a chilling effect on many would-be activists.
Time will tell whether India’s nascent open public records policies can survive this backlash.