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anthem:

A Hero Honda
I don™t demand
A new Maruti
I don™t demand
Pepsi Cola
I don™t demand
Full wages
We demand!
Food security
We demand!
The right to information
We demand!3

Next came a report on MKSS™s recent work, and then the highlight
of the meeting: public testimony. MKSS organizers had acquired the
registers in which ration dealers recorded the sale of rationed goods.
“Did you buy thirty-¬ve kilograms of wheat from your ration shop on
the fourth of January?” an organizer asked Lal Singh Rawat, a red-
turbaned quarry worker, after reading from the register. “I did not,”
said Rawat. “I was told that there was no wheat available.” Quickly
the meeting fell apart. Ration dealers surrounded Rawat, the gener-
ator that supplied power to the microphone suddenly shut off, and
for twenty minutes the meeting fell into tempered anarchy. The dis-
ruption was expected. The villagers stayed, order was restored, and
the truth came out. Nikhil Dey, another MKSS leader, read the list
of alleged disbursements from the registers, while Shankar Singh
checked entries in the villagers™ ration books. In eight panchayats, at
least thirty ration dealers had defrauded the poor by making false
entries in their registers.
This was theatre (agreed Aruna Roy, the former civil servant who
with Dey and Singh had set up MKSS) “ but with the very serious
purpose of helping the poor. An earlier public hearing in nearby
Janawad panchayat had revealed the depth of corruption in public
works projects. Engineers recorded measurements for “ghost works”
that did not exist, and muster rolls showed the payment of wages
to villagers who had never worked on a project. Almost ¬ve million
rupees could not be accounted for. The state government appointed a
commission that concluded that only one out of seven projects in the

2
The Glass Case


panchayat had actually been completed, and twenty-six government
of¬cials were charged with corruption. In other meetings, village lead-
ers faced with evidence of their fraud apologized, returned money to
the panchayat, and promised to mend their ways.
In Janawad, and again in Kelwara, it had been bureaucratic
routine “ paperwork “ that proved the undoing of of¬cials and ration
dealers. The revelation of a damning document was the highlight of
a jan sunwai. The MKSS, realizing the power of this moment of reve-
lation, made the right to documents the centerpiece of its work. “The
right to information,” its slogan said, “is the right to life.” The MKSS
began a campaign for adoption of a state law that would provide
citizens with a right to obtain copies of documents, such as ration
registers and muster rolls, held in government of¬ces. Rajasthan™s
Right to Information Act, adopted in 2000, entitles citizens to ask
for such documents, outlines the circumstances in which of¬cials are
entitled to withhold them, and provides methods for enforcing the
law against recalcitrant bureaucrats. The law does not always lead to
ready access to documents “ in Kelwara, the ration registers were not
released until shortly before the jan sunwai “ but it establishes the
principle of transparency.4
By 2004, nine state governments in the world™s most populous
democracy had adopted laws like Rajasthan™s Right to Information
Act.5 Inspired by MKSS™s example, the advocacy group Parivartan
used Delhi™s new disclosure law to obtain information about public
works allegedly completed in two of the city™s poorest neighborhoods;
a jan sunwai in one community revealed pervasive fraud and allowed
Parivartan™s leaders to eke out a promise from local of¬cials that
notice of new projects would be publicly posted.6 Another group,
Satark Nagrik Sangathan, exposed abuses by ration dealers in Delhi
slums, leading the city government to offer tighter inspection of ration
shops.7
The state of Maharashtra “ home to one of the world™s largest
cities, Mumbai “ adopted a Right to Information Act in 2003, prodded
by the hunger strike of a prominent activist, Anna Hazare. (“All cor-
ruption can end only if there is freedom of information,” said Hazare,
who resumed his strike in February 2004 to push for better enforce-
ment of the Act.8 ) Within months, residents of Mumbai seized on
the law to learn how many city employees had been suspended with
pay, what fees contractors were allowed to collect in city parking

3
Blacked Out


lots, how frequently politicians had interfered in transfers of police
of¬cers, and how often leaky sewer pipes were inspected. In Maha-
rashtra™s second-largest city, Pune, activists obtained logbooks that
showed civic leaders had taken frequent vacations in of¬cial cars.9
Elsewhere there were similar rebellions against of¬cial secretive-
ness. In Bangkok, Thailand, Sumalee Limpa-ovart was troubled after
her daughter Nattanit was denied admission to the ¬rst grade of
the prestigious Kasetsart University Demonstration School. In 1998,
school of¬cials told Limpa-ovart that Nattanit had failed the admis-
sion exam, taken by over 2000 children. Limpa-ovart, frustrated after
two years of test preparation, asked the school to provide the test
results for her daughter and the 120 successful applicants. The school
refused. However, Limpa-ovart had a new recourse: As part of a con-
stitutional reform program undertaken the preceding year, Thailand
had adopted the Of¬cial Information Act, which operated much like
Rajasthan™s Right to Information Act. Limpa-ovart, a public prosecu-
tor, appealed to Thailand™s Of¬cial Information Board for an order
that would oblige the school to release the test results.
Midway through her two-year struggle, school of¬cials offered
Limpa-ovart a compromise: a list of test results for the ¬rst grade
class, with student names removed. The list showed that one-third
of the newly admitted students had also received a failing grade.
Limpa-ovart suspected that these students were dek sen “ children
from privileged families who used social connections or payments
of “tea money” to gain access to the publicly funded school. In 2000,
Thailand™s Supreme Court ¬nally ordered the disclosure of the names
of these students, revealing that many were the sons and daughters
of leading political and business families. The wide press coverage of
Limpa-ovart™s case prodded other parents to make similar demands
for the release of information about admission tests. The Thai State
Council ruled that the Kasetsart University Demonstration School™s
admission policy violated a constitutional guarantee against discrim-
ination on social or economic grounds, and Thailand™s Ministry of
University Affairs ordered schools to reform their admission proce-
dures “ an “historic ruling,” said Asiaweek, that undercut “nepotism
and cronyism” in the nation™s school system.10
In Japan, most local governments had adopted ordinances to
implement shiru kenri “ the right to know “ by the mid-1990s. Pro-
moted by a coalition of consumer groups, civil libertarians, and

4
The Glass Case


progressive legislators, the laws were modeled on the U.S. Freedom
of Information Act. In 1995, an extraordinary group of lawyers vol-
unteered for a nationwide campaign to uncover spending abuses by
local of¬cials. Calling themselves the Zenkoku Shimin Ombudsmen
(the Citizens™ Ombudsmen Association), the lawyers ¬led simultane-
ous requests for information about spending on travel and entertain-
ment across the country, and discovered that in one year of¬cials
had spent at least one-quarter of a billion dollars, largely aimed at
currying favor with bureaucrats in the national government. A new
phrase, kan-kan settai “ “of¬cial-to-of¬cial entertainment” “ entered
the popular lexicon. Soon it was joined by another “ kara shutcho, the
“empty business trip” “ as investigators found that expense vouchers
had often been forged to hide embezzlement. (In one government,
even the auditors had falsi¬ed expense reports to create a private
slush fund.) The ombudsmen™s study led to dramatic changes in the
spending and accounting practices of local government.11
Japan™s national government adopted its own Information Dis-
closure Law, also patterned on American legislation, in 1999. (To a
degree, the law was also the result of American prodding: U.S. trade
negotiators argued that the lack of a disclosure law constituted a
barrier to free trade in Japan.12 ) When it went into effect in April
2001, Japanese ministries received 4,000 information requests in the
¬rst week.13 In 2003 the Cabinet Secretariat was ordered to provide
Tokyo™s Daily Yomiuri with documents showing that the chief cabi-
net secretary controlled a secret $13 million fund; critics alleged that
the money was used to “smooth business” in the legislature.14 Some-
times the consequences of disclosure were more profound. In Febru-
ary 2004, the Health Ministry was ordered to release the names of 500
hospitals that had been supplied with blood products contaminated
with the hepatitis C virus over the last two decades. The information
was sought by Japanese legislator Satoru Ienishi, a hemophiliac who
was infected with AIDS and hepatitis C through tainted blood prod-
ucts in the 1990s. It was estimated that thousands of other Japanese
might have fallen ill in the same way.15
Uganda did not have a disclosure law until early 2005.16 However
its 1995 constitution, drafted in an effort to restore democratic con-
trol of government, recognizes that citizens have “a right of access to
information in the possession of the State.”17 In 2001 the Ugandan
environmental group Greenwatch, backed by the California-based

5
Blacked Out


International Rivers Network, invoked the constitutional guarantee
to obtain a con¬dential agreement between the Ugandan government
and AES Nile Power Limited to build a major hydroelectric dam.
(Greenwatch claimed that the dam would unnecessarily ruin the cul-
turally important Bujagali Falls.) The government refused to disclose
the agreement, but in 2002 the Ugandan High Court ruled that there
was no valid reason to withhold the document.18 Greenwatch and
the International Rivers Network claimed that the agreement showed
the Ugandan government had agreed to excessive payments of almost
$300 million.19 A month later, AES withdrew from the project.20
In Mexico, the reformist National Action Party led by Vicente Fox
promised a right to information law as part of a program to transform
government into “una caja de cristal, donde todo lo que hacemos,
absolutamente todo, puede ser sujeto de hacerse publico”: a glass
´
case, in which “absolutely everything” of¬cials do would be laid open
to public view.21 Adopted in 2002, the law soon proved to be a useful
tool for scrutinizing political parties themselves. Parties registered
with Mexico™s Federal Electoral Institute are generously supported
by public funds, but critics have complained that party leaders face
little accountability for their use of public money. (In 2003, one minor
party was ¬ned $18 million for embezzlement and other abuses of
public funds.22 ) A journalist with Mexico City™s El Universal, Arturo
Zarate Vite, asked the Electoral Institute to release information it
´
had collected on the salaries of senior party of¬cials; in Novem-
ber 2003, the Institute refused. With the aid of a nongovernmental
organization, Libertad de Informacion-M´ xico, Zarate appealed to
´ e ´
a federal tribunal, which ruled in 2004 that the salary data should
be released. Within a week, Mexico™s major parties published salary
details on their websites, adding fuel to the debate over federal policy
on the funding of political parties.23 (Libertad de Informacion-M´ xico
´ e
scored a second victory in early 2005, when the Mexican attorney gen-
eral™s of¬ce was compelled to release parts of an indictment against
former President Luis Echeverr´a relating to the murder of student
±
protesters by paramilitary troops in 1971.24 )
Around the world, stories about the large and small victories
attained by the use of new right to information laws continued to tum-
ble out. On September 28, 2004 “ the date selected by transparency
advocates in 2003 as the global Right to Know Day “ an American
nongovernmental organization catalogued other disclosures: in

6
The Glass Case


Romania, statistics about domestic surveillance by the intelligence
service; in South Africa, information about apartheid-era deals
between the government-owned arms corporation and foreign
weapons manufacturers; in Ireland, documents showing weaknesses
in a new electronic voting scheme; and in the Slovak Republic, details
about the privatization of state-owned industries.25
The British Labour Party led by Prime Minister Tony Blair
promised a new Freedom of Information Act as part of its own reform
platform in 1997, and the Blair government eventually adopted the
law in 2000. However, time in of¬ce had dulled Blair™s enthusiasm
for transparency, and his government delayed implementation until
New Year™s Day of 2005. The public™s appetite for information was not
diminished: In the ¬rst four weeks, major government departments
received 4,000 requests.26 Newly released documents showed that
the British royal family received more than £1 million in farm subsi-
dies from the European Union in the previous two years,27 and that
the government™s ¬nancial losses from the 1992 “Black Wednesday”
debacle (a failed effort to defend the pound against attacks by cur-
rency speculators) had actually been only a fraction of earlier public
estimates.28
Records also exposed the sordid corners of British history, such
as the torture of detainees during the Kenyan Mau Mau rebellion
of the 1950™s, and governmental complicity in the bribery of foreign
of¬cials by British arms dealers before the practice was outlawed in
2002. One con¬dential memorandum contained the reply of a British
army chief to a query from Britain™s ambassador in Venezuela as to
whether the government was prepared to tolerate such bribery:

I am completely mysti¬ed by just what your problem is. . . . People
who deal with the arms trade, even if they are sitting in a govern-
ment of¬ce . . . day by day carry out transactions knowing that at
some point bribery is involved. Obviously I and my colleagues in
this of¬ce do not ourselves engage in it, but we believe that various
people who are somewhere along the train of our transactions do.
They do not tell us what they are doing and we do not inquire. We
are interested in the end result.29

Most surprising, perhaps, was the extent to which the rhetoric
of transparency had permeated China “ one of the most secretive
regimes in the world and notorious for its persecution of journalists

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