Thursday, July 1, 2010

Using FOIA-type law to empower rural Indians

This story about a relatively new "Right to Know" law in India appeared on the front-page of the New York Times a few days ago under the headline, "Right-to-Know Law Gives India's Poor a Lever." In it, Lydia Polgreen explains how individuals are using the law to cut through India's bureaucracy, reveal and counter corruption, and garner improved government services of all sorts. I found it interesting that several of the examples she gives are from "villages." Here's one, from the story's lede, about Chanchala Devi, a woman from a lower caste who sought government assistance to build a house:
Not a mud-and-stick hut, like her current home in this desolate village in the mineral-rich, corruption-corroded state of Jharkhand, but a proper brick-and-mortar house. When she heard that a government program for the poor would give her about $700 to build that house, she applied immediately.
Devi waited for four years with no reply to her application before using what Polgreen characterizes as "India’s powerful and wildly popular Right to Information law." Two months ago, [w]ith help from a local activist, she filed a request at a local government office to find out who had gotten the grants while she waited, and why." A few days later, "a local bureaucrat" approved her grant and the check soon followed.

Another anecdote is about a woman who used the law to request attendance records for the staff at her village medical clinic because their frequent absences keep her from getting the care to which she is entitled.

Elsewhere, Polgreen says the "rural poor are using the law to solve basic problems," and she again focuses on the rural context in summarizing:
Still, the law has become part of the fabric of rural India in the five years since it was passed, and has clearly begun to tilt the balance of power, long skewed toward bureaucrats and politicians.
I wonder whether the use of anecdotes from rural India in relation to the law suggests greater corruption at the local level or in rural places, and perhaps the greater existence of checks and balances at higher scales of government? That idea is reflected in the domestic literature on rural local governments.

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