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CSOs in India use the Right to Information Act for Accountability and Transparency

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published
25 January 2013

Renee Zandvliet, working with EuropeAid’s 'Civil Society and Local Authorities' unit, recently visited the European Union (EU) Delegation to India, which currently provides financial support to approximately 80 civil society organisations (CSOs). However, many of these will tell you that while there is a good legal and policy framework in place across several sectors, implementation can be a problem. TheRight to Information Act, which helps individuals -and CSOs- in India demand transparency, accountability and action, offers a potential solution. As part of capacity4dev.eu's CSOs in India Week, Renée shares her views on this.

 

Renée Zandvliet is working for EuropeAid’s 'Civil Society and Local Authorities' unit. She recently contributed to the drafting of the policy for a more strategic EU engagement with civil society, and she is currently working on the preparation of guidance materials for staff in European Union (EU) Delegations on how to better work with and support civil society organisations.

From 29 October to 9 November 2012, she visited India where she met with representatives of over 15 EU-funded Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) in Karnataka and Andra Pradesh in the South, and Uttar Pradesh and Delhi in the North. Working on human rights, health and livelihoods, these organisations are either direct beneficiaries of EU funding, or partners of direct beneficiaries.

The purpose of her mission was to identify and document good or innovative practices of how the EU Delegation to India supports CSOs, in order to illustrate the new EU policy for engaging with CSOs and offer inspiration to colleagues in other EU Delegations, Headquarters and others. Upon her return to Brussels, Renée drafted two Voices & View for capacity4dev.eu: Civil Society and Human Resources for Health and How CSOs are using the Right to Information Act for Accountability and Transparency. This is the second of these articles, the first was be posted earlier this week. She also drafted a blog article: The EU Delegation to India and the New EU Civil Society Policy.

Civil Society and the Right to Information Act

In India the EU currently provides financial support to approximately 80 civil society organisations (CSOs) working in a variety of sectors ranging across human rights, health and environment, livelihoods and vocational education and training. 

Ask a random selection of these organisations about the legal and policy framework in their sectors, and they will tell you that good laws and policies are in place but that implementation is a problem. 

There are a wide range of laws, policies and schemes protecting and supporting the poorest and most vulnerable groups in society, many of which were designed with the active involvement of CSOs. Once adopted at the national level, these need to be endorsed and implemented at local level, which is sometimes delayed or hampered by a lack of political will or other circumstances.

One piece of legislation that does seem quite effective is the 2005 Right to Information (RTI) Act, which helps individuals -and CSOs- in India demand transparency, accountability and action. As such, it even contributes to efforts to enforce effective implementation of other laws and policies. The Act was adopted following years of advocacy by civil society.

"Democracy requires an informed citizenry and transparency of information which are vital to its functioning and also to contain corruption and to hold Governments and their instrumentalities accountable to the governed", reads the Act's preamble.

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Through the Act, often considered one of the most empowering and progressive legislations passed in India, any Indian citizen may request information from a public authority, which is required to reply within 30 days (or 48 hours if the information concerns the life or liberty of a person). It is applicable to all constitutional authorities, including the executive, legislature and judiciary as well as any institution or body established or constituted by an act of parliament or a state legislature. The RTI Act enables applicants to 'obtain copies of permissible governmental documents; inspect permissible governmental documents; or inspect permissible governmental works and obtain samples.' Moreover, with the RTI Act the central and state governments also committed to raise awareness and educate the public, notably disadvantaged communities, on this Act.

So how does it work? A citizen who desires to obtain any information under the Act can make an application to the Public Information Officer of the concerned public authority in writing in English, Hindi or the official language of the area in which the application is submitted. There is an application fee of 10 Rupees (equivalent to about € 0.15), except for people below the poverty line for whom the application is free.

The RTI Act is proving to be a powerful tool for CSOs across India. They are using and raising awareness about the RTI Act in a variety of ways, some of which have received funding from the EU.

For example, the Asian Centre for Human Rights (ACHR) - an organisation dedicated to the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the Asian region - recently used the RTI Act to assess how much government funding is going to NGOs through the different Ministries. There are numerous schemes for NGOs, but little analysis on who benefits, how much they receive and what the impact of their work is. 

Collecting the necessary data was not an easy task, but the RTI Act proved crucial in accessing the information: ACHR used RTI applications to obtain information regarding financial grants to NGOs and so-called voluntary organisations (VOs) through different government and state ministries and departments. They found that the Indian government annually provides at least € 140 million to NGOs/VOs through various government schemes, most of which is not adequately monitored after it has been disbursed.

The organisation also uses RTI applications in its EU-funded project to reduce violence against children in conflict with Indian law. Most of the reports produced under this project, covering different aspects of violence within the juvenile justice system, are based on previously unavailable information obtained through the RTI Act. "These are government data and as a result, there is little room for the government to dismiss it. This is one reason for the reports having the impact [they have]." says Tejang Chakma, Research Coordinator at ACHR. The reports are being used to raise awareness on violations, to promote accountability and to incentivise stakeholders to carry out their respective responsibilities.

The People's Vigilance Committee on Human Rights (PVCHR) - a human rights organisation based in Northern India fighting for the rights of marginalised people - is using the RTI ACT in a different way. As part of its EU-funded project 'Reducing police torture against Muslim minority at the grassroots level by engaging and strengthening human rights institutions in India', PVCHR is supporting victims of human rights violations in making RTI applications. The organisation is raising awareness about the RTI Act and showing people how they can use it for their benefit.

In 2012 alone, the organisation supported over 204 people in submitting RTI applications. The RTI applications are used, for example, to check if disciplinary action was taken against police personnel involved in torture, to ask for progress reports of investigations or to get the reasoning behind a decision (not) to provide compensation for cases of police violence. In many cases, the RTI applications have helped victims get ahead in their struggle for justice.

Parmarth, an Indian organisation working in some of the most deprived areas of Uttar Pradesh in Northern India, is implementing a project to reduce the vulnerability of the community by securing water management through women’s participation. With EU support, the organisation is mobilising and supporting collectives of women organised into so-called Pani Panchayats (water councils) on a community level. These Pani Panchayats are voluntary councils in charge of equitable water distribution at the community level.

 

This is a photostory compiled from Renées visits to two villages working with Parmarth. For best viewing, we suggest that you watch the video in full screen mode and change the quality to HD (you can use the star like button on the bottom right to do this).

 

Pani Panchayat members have received training on the RTI Act and on how to use it to obtain the information that they need. Subsequently a number of Pani Panchayats have succeeded in filing RTI applications and obtaining lists of those in their communities who live Below the Poverty Line (BPL). People with BPL status are eligible for a number of special benefits and support schemes, such as ration cards or subsidized reproductive and child health services. Through the obtained list, they managed to link the poorest members of their communities to these schemes so that they could access these benefits. For example, following its RTI application the Pani Panchayat in the village of Kalothara received the BPL list within 15 days, which allowed it to identify those households eligible for special schemes. As a result, several of the poorest households in the community benefitted from toilet constructions in their homes.

This last example also highlights one of the main challenges in implementing the RTI Act: the lack of awareness, particularly in rural areas. Many people remain unaware of the very existence of the RTI Act, or of the process of making a RTI application. ACHR, PVCHR and Parmarth are doing their share of educating citizens so that they can use the RTI Act as a tool for change in their own lives and in their wider communities.

For more information please read the Parmarth Annual Progress Report on Establishing Women's First Right to Water Resources. 

EC / EEAS staff that are also members of capacity4dev.eu can acces more information on the project in the EC/EEAS group on Civil Society.

This collaborative piece was drafted with input from Renée Zandvliet and Laurent Le Danois, with support from the capacity4dev.eu Coordination Team. The photos are courtesy of Renée Zandvliet.

If you would like to take part in the discussion on CSOs in India and the rest of the world, then please visit and join the Public group on Civil Society.

 

DISCLAIMER: This information is provided in the interests of knowledge sharing and capacity development and should not be interpreted as the official view of the European Commission, or any other organisation.

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