“When we don’t get ration, what do we do with information?”
Sometime in 2005, right after the implementation of the Right to Information Act, activist Anjali Bhardwaj was holding an awareness camp at a Delhi slum when a woman threw this question at her.
“The question made me realise that people will have to be explained that the law will help them access not just information, but help them access their rights and dues. Gradually, as it helped them access records about ration shops, stock registers, sale registers, the corruption became apparent. They realised they can now hold ration dealers accountable,” Bhardwaj said.
Over the years, the RTI has emerged as one of the most used transparency laws globally. “Around 60 lakh RTI applications are filed annually. And this in a country where one has to contend with big ticket corruption as well as grassroots corruption,” Bhardwaj said.
On Tuesday, the government of the United States named Bhardwaj among 12 individuals from across the world as the recipients of the newly-instituted Anti-Corruption Champions Award. The state department under the Biden administration made the announcement, saying the award recognises those who braved adversity to defend transparency and combat corruption.
Founder of the Satark Nagrik Sangathan (SNS), a citizens’ platform working to bring transparency and accountability in governance, Bhardwaj hopes that the award will help draw attention to lapses such as the absence of rules holding up the implementation of the Whistle Blowers Protection Act, 2014 for seven years.
“Since 2005, over 80 RTI activists have been killed for raising questions. Recently, we had gathered in Odisha to observe the first death anniversary of RTI activist Ranjan Das. Whistleblowers like him who have uncovered corruption in housing schemes, PDS and other social security schemes using RTI keep asking for protection. A law is really necessary for them,” she said.
Bhardwaj studied at the LSR college, Delhi school of Economics and the Oxford University, before starting her journey as a transparency activist around two decades back. She said the award is a “recognition of the collective effort of people and groups across the country who hold power to account”.
“The award also comes at a time when those who ask questions, whether on corruption or human rights excesses, are facing attacks. There are attacks on instruments through which people seek transparency. The RTI Act was amended for the first time in 2019 and it significantly weakened the independence of the information commissioners. The commissions also remain headless and appeals and complaints languish. These are major challenges,” she said.