25 Oct 09 Celebrating the Right to Information
It has been four years since the Right to Information Act was passed in India. Its record during its relatively brief tenure is mixed. A recent a study by the National RTI Awards Secretariat instituted by the Public Cause Research Foundation (PCRF), a Delhi-based organization that works in the area of transparent, accountable and participatory governance, found that only 27% of the appeals filed under the Act succeeded in getting the information. For 70% of the cases, orders were gained in favour of disclosure, but compliance of these orders was only 39%. The variation in this between different states is high.
The seemingly poor performance notwithstanding, the legislation is a valuable (but under-utilised) tool for business researchers to gain valuable data in an environment of information drought. Data on the % of the RTI appeals filed for business research purposes is not available, but I feel it is likely to be a very negligible proportion.
The Indian Government collects far less data than governments in more developed countries. Businesses in India thirst for a valid basis on which to base decisions, particularly those relating to unorganised segments of the economy and household incomes. Given that the unorganised sector constitutes over 85% of the economy in terms of employment, and over 60% in terms of GDP, the information gap is huge.
The little data that the government does collect is not easily available to researchers. Much of it is not posted on websites. Phone calls and trips to the concerned offices don’t always yield results – it’s really depends on whims and moods of officer in charge. The data that is posted on websites is not always easy to find – many government websites are poorly designed and hence really hard to navigate. Links don’t always work. On contacting the authority, a curt instruction to “take it from the website” is all that is forthcoming.
In such cases, an RTI works very well. The timeline is long – it takes at least a month to get a response, some times a little more. Where the information is politically sensitive, the information may take much longer to get – or I have been told, not at all. Our experience with applications for data of interest to businesses has been positive.
Researchers in developed countries, where a lot more information is available, have taken the right to information legislation to an entirely different level. The legislation, for instance, can be used to figure out details such as specific changes in the production line of a competitor’s factory. While India is a very long way from that kind of reporting and transparency, a start has been made.