Arvind Kejriwal uses a new state law to fight corruption in India, training ordinary citizens to secure transparency and accountability at all levels of government.
The New Idea
In theory, democratic governments put their people in charge. In practice, the Indian government puts its people at the mercy of government functionaries who suppress information, extort money and favors in exchange for basic services, and thus violate the basic rights of citizens.
Arvind uses a 2001 law called the Right to Information Act (RTIA) to bring political power back to the people of India. The law began in Delhi, and has since spread to eight other states, opening opportunities for citizens to hold their governments accountable to high standards of transparency and integrity. Through his organization Parivartan, Arvind raises awareness of the Act and trains citizen groups to use the law to check corruption. He leverages a growing volume of success stories to demonstrate that direct engagement in local government can make a real difference in people’s lives.
The members and methods of Parivartan direct criticism beyond single individuals to cover entire departments and state machinery. This enables Arvin to use each victory to address the entire Indian political structure. Through patient and sustained effort, he lays the foundation for a new political system that values efficient service delivery, sensitive bureaucracy, and direct participation of the people.
Without access to the information that drives the action of their government, people cannot hold government accountable to basic standards of integrity—nor can they adequately participate in the decisions that shape their lives. India, the world’s largest democracy, lived for 77 years under a completely opaque system of governance legitimized by the colonial Official Secrets Act (OSA) of 1923. The recent enactment of the Right to Information Act in nine Indian states marks a significant shift for Indian democracy, but the federal government retains the OSA, and many public institutions continue to operate in secrecy.
The process of implementing the RTIA has been anything but smooth. Most state departments have either feigned ignorance of the law, or made unwritten policy to resist all citizen requests for information. For their part, the great majority of citizens are still unaware of the Act—ironically, the law that opens so much new information to public scrutiny remains among the government’s best kept secrets. As a result, the political system of India still shelters extortion, bribery, and undemocratic decision making.
The poor flow of information is compounded by low levels of literacy and the absence of effective tools for record-keeping and communication. The Act does not emphasize active intervention in educating people about their right to access information, and low literacy precludes many citizens from researching the right themselves. Worse, when they do approach government offices, outdated methods of file storage stand in the way of information requests. Public buildings are full of dusty and disorganized files, providing an easy excuse for refusing access to records on the specious claim that they have been misplaced.
The right to information holds as much importance in the lives of marginalized people as it does for the general public, the academics, and the media. Food security, shelter, environment, employment and other survival needs are inextricably linked to the right to information. But the poor and the illiterate do not have the means to grapple with state bureaucracies, many of which have made it their goal to frustrate all information requests.
Many Indians thus remain passive spectators in the government they elect. Without accountability, the government misuses funds and siphons resources to pet projects, while millions of poor families continue to suffer. Although a few court cases on government transparency have gained mass publicity, they have done little to help people assert themselves and take their rights into their own hands.
Arvind uses the Right to Information Act to equip individual citizens with the power to question their government. Through his organization Parivartan (Change) he promotes participation in governance by showing people how simple information requests can directly benefit their lives.
His work starts with a thorough analysis of the RTIA that brings its full progressive potential to light. With only a few exceptions, the law guarantees citizens the right to file an information request to any public institution. The institution has to fill the request within a month, or face substantial fines. If the information it provides is false or deliberately altered, its officials face extensive penalties.
Using the Act as a springboard, Arvind works to raise awareness of the right to government transparency and motivates citizens to demand information and accountability public institutions. At the same time, he collects data on system failures and public grievances, and conducts jan sunwais, public audits to address these problems.
As they approach a new area, Parivartan volunteers use songs, skits and slogans to gather and recruit local citizens. They partner with new recruits to collect stories and data that reveal flaws in local public services, focusing specifically on corruption and the misuse of resources. Data in hand, Arvind helps citizens to file information requests, demanding records and evidence that sheds light on the flaws of their government. If institutions fail to cooperate, Parivartan spreads word of their resistance far and wide, often subjecting them to public audits through the provisions of the Act. Arvind trains and involves local volunteers throughout the process, preparing them to continue the struggle for transparency and accountability on their own.
Through individual and community cases, Arvind has taken on many of the most deeply entrenched public bureaucracies in India, including the Income Tax department, the Municipal Corporation of Delhi, the Public Distribution System (PDS), the Delhi Electricity Board, and others.
Case studies reveal the methods that drive Arvind’s success. In one instance, Arvind partnered with a poor woman named Triveni who had failed to receive her share of much-needed food from the PDS. Officials told her that she wasn’t getting her food because the government had stopped distribution. She worked with Parivartan to file an information request, and discovered that the officials had lied: rather than stopping distribution, officials had siphoned off her food supply and sold it on the black market. Suspecting that the problem was widespread, Parivartan pushed her research further and found that 93 percent of all wheat and 87 percent of all rice provided by the government was being sold in the black market. Triveni worked with Arvind to re-open her local PDS provider to serve dozens of poor families in her district. Their campaign led directly to the renewal of 15 other PDS shops, and to an investigation of the PDS across India.
Another Parivartan initiative held the Delhi Municipal Corporation (MCD) to account for corrupt spending practices in a resettlement colony in Delhi. With data gleaned from formal information requests, Arvind led awareness drives to publicize the false claims of the MCD, which professed to have carried out construction and repairs worth thousands of dollars in their neighborhood. He brought residents on-site to see for themselves the huge gaps between the Corporation’s claims and reality. Finally, at a public hearing attended by almost a thousand people, residents read aloud the content of each contract and testified to the failure of the MCD to adequately provide for their community.
Residents of another poor community worked with Arvind to demand explanations of the poor quality of road construction being done in their area. On the basis of evidence gathered through the Act, they had the offending engineer transferred, the material replaced, and the roads redone. In areas where families have traditionally paid bribes to ensure that they receive electrical connections, Parivartan leverages the RTIA to bring electricity without illicit payoffs. Arvind’s organization has helped resolve more than 2,500 cases like these.
Arvind channels individual successes into a larger campaign for what he calls a complete switchover from representative democracy to participatory democracy. To push this switch nationwide, he helped to found the Delhi Right to Information Manch, an effort that brings together a wide range of people and groups working for government transparency. The Manch draws on a volunteer base of school and college students, along with adults from Parivartan, to recruit and train concerned citizens in advocacy work. Arvind specifically seeks out retirees, especially former government officers, to bring their knowledge and experience to bear on problems of transparency.
Arvind is now taking his idea across the country to states that have not yet enacted the RTIA, using mass media to drive interest in his message. He recently travelled to Meghalaya to help students build a movement to demand transparency in their state government, and he has partnered with several citizen groups to push for a Right to Information Act on a national level. His organization draws inspiration from their recent triumphs with the Whistleblowers’ Act: through their efforts and the martyrdom of a corruption-fighting government worker, India became one of only five countries in the world to offer substantial protections for whistleblowers.
Parivartan so far has been a volunteer-based organization, benefiting from the experience and resources of a wide range of students and professionals. Journalists, social work graduates, and ordinary citizens come together to make collective decisions on the direction and daily operation of the group. As his network grows, Arvind plans to found nodal information centers that connect each local organization to the resources and knowledge of the collective. This new infrastructure should allow him to tackle new issues like electoral corruption and public health care.
An engineer from the premier Indian Institute of Technology, Arvind has always been bothered by corruption and the passivity of the people. After quitting his job with the Tata Steel Company, he took time off to work with the Missionaries of Charity and the Ramakrishna Mission in eastern and northeastern India.He then joined the Indian Revenue Service (IRS), making it his mission to curb corruption in the department. He founded Parivartan during his time at the IRS, using the new group to force important changes in the operations of his own division. Heartened by his success, Arvind took a two-year sabbatical to study corruption, and began to work full-time for transparency and accountability in government. He works full time for Parivartan as a volunteer, and lives in Delhi with his wife and two children.