South Asian countries have made remarkable progress in adopting laws that provide citizens with the right to information. Yet in many instances, information still cannot be accessed, or differentiated access to information can be observed. ‘Infomediaries’ introduced in Bangladesh through a community empowerment programme have played an essential role in helping marginalized people access information by mediating between communities as information seekers and local governments as information providers. Such actors may assist marginalized communities in South Asia and beyond in claiming their right to information, writes Sujoy Dutta.
Legislation guaranteeing access to information has been globally recognized as a fundamental human right. Such legislation can empower citizens in urban and rural spaces, including women, by allowing them unrestricted access to information. This helps to promote transparency and accountability, for example by facilitating the review of government policies and programmes to prevent the misuse of government resources by officials.
However, the implementation of such acts does not always take place in ways that benefit all citizens equally. Studies indicate that merely creating a legal space is not enough to ensure that poor people can access information. Neuman and Calland argue that ensuring citizens’ right to information is a three-phased process that involves the introduction of law, its implementation, and, finally, its enactment. All the elements of this ‘transparency triangle’ are crucial and interrelated; however, the implementation phase is of paramount importance and serves as the base of the triangle.
In South Asian countries, the enactment of such laws occurred in the wake of political reform and the deepening of democracy. Pakistan was the first country to introduce a Right of Access to Information Act in 2002, followed by India (in 2005), Nepal (in 2007) and Bangladesh (in 2009). All these countries introduced this law after years of lobbying by civil society groups. While the laws are key for holding governments accountable, their use by poor communities in this region remains restricted.
What’s happening in India?
India’s Right To Information Act is considered to be one of the most robust laws in South Asia, yet it remains untapped by the poor and marginalized communities, who have limited means of access. In five Indian states (Goa, Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra, Karnataka and Delhi), citizens are more likely to access this law, as requests for information prompt officials to act “almost like magic”. This is because, once an application for accessing information has been submitted, the government is expected to produce results.
But in states that are considered less progressive, like Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, where incomes and literacy rates are lower and corruption is rampant due to poor governance, awareness this law is limited. In these states, government officials undermine transparency norms, refuse to provide the requested information, and reject appeals to access information on spurious grounds. These practices mock transparency laws, as the poor have a hard time dealing with inflexible bureaucratic officials and procedures.
Experiences from Mexico suggest that expanding the use of right to information to disadvantaged communities requires trustworthy intermediaries. In many countries, this role has been entrusted to NGOs, as well as community and youth groups, who enable the poor to submit their information requests without delay. This helps everyone not only to access information, but also to interrogate anti-democratic practices. A community empowerment programme of Bangladesh has shown how intermediaries can make an impact. Such configurations can be replicated in parts of South Asia and in other parts of the world where information has not reached disadvantaged sections of the population.
How ‘infomediaries’ are helping marginalized people
India’s more restrictive states could take cues from the Community Empowerment Programme (CEP) of Bangladesh. Introduced in 2011 and supported by the World Bank and the Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee (BRAC), the programme is empowering the poor (especially women) to overcome difficulties they face while obtaining information. The activities of the programme include the identification, training, and assignment of ‘informediaries’– a cadre of information intermediaries who have a basic understanding of the law and are chosen from within the community to motivate villagers to access information. These informediaries hold information clinics aimed at developing better-informed citizens as they link the marginalized sections with state machinery.
In Bangladesh, these informediaries were selected from Polli Samaj, a popular theatre group who are accepted by villagers. Their role is to gather information queries from the community and submit applications of right to information to the relevant government or NGO offices on their behalf. When answers to the relevant information are received, they are passed on to the applicants.
Based on their popularity, these infomediaries are able to establish a close rapport with public officials through their repeated visits. This allows them access to information with relatively greater success. In many instances, they have been effective in assisting marginalized groups (including women) to access information by overcoming multiple barriers. These include communication, infrastructure, and unpaved roads and inadequate public transportation systems that have made it difficult and time-consuming for the women to travel to lodge their application for information.
However, if this concept is to be implemented in India’s less prosperous states, it has to move a step forward by ensuring that all marginalized groups have access to public offices. Infomediaries should also motivate women to demand information. This will eventually enable these groups to access information without the help of infomediaries.
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About the author:
Sujoy Dutta teaches at Tata Institute of Social Sciences in India. His research publications integrate disciplinary tools from political economy, sociology, and public policy, much of which is based on fieldwork-based empirical analysis (in Uttar Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, and some parts of Maharashtra, India). He holds a doctorate degree from the National University of Singapore and a Master’s degree from the ISS. Currently, he is undertaking extensive fieldwork in India and Bangladesh to examine the impact of the Right to Information Act on poor households.
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