Editorial In Indian Express (29.01.2007)

RTI is forging connections and creating, but it needs protection from entrenched bureaucracies

The fruit-seller from Fatehpur who wants to know whether the ration shop near his house can really deny him his ration. The caller from Jammu who wants help in getting her voter ID. The man in Bangalore who wants to access the plan of the road in front of his house to stall encroachments. These are a few of the people, a report in this newspaper has told us, who have called in at the first national RTI helpline set up two months ago by a private trust. But this is not just their story. There has been other evidence as well of a people taking ownership of a law. More than any other piece of legislation in recent times, the Right to Information has the potential to change the way citizens imagine themselves, and the ways in which they relate to the state.

As a large and diverse democracy India has long commanded respect. In recent times, it has attracted more attention abroad for the ways in which it continues to accommodate different, even contending, views and aspirations. Yet, amid all the talk of the ‘Indian model’, those who have stakes in the health of India’s democracy have had to concede this: the line of accountability that stretches between the voter and the elected is far too long and fuzzy. When the people exercise their power to vote out governments, it has often seemed like an act of desperation — as if that was the only power they could use.

All that could be changing now. Our obstinate focus on the big political fights may be obscuring from our view the small but significant changes spreading through city, small town and village. The law that was passed in 2005 and one that still occasions controversy over its precise scope, is slowly passing into a nation’s common sense. But the law continues to need protection from entrenched bureaucracies which have always benefited from institutionalised inertia.