Using India's populist Right to Information process gives citizens about as good a chance of receiving basic services as paying a bribe does, providing a new, and surprising weapon in the war against corruption.
Two doctoral candidates in political science at Yale University recruited slum dwellers in Delhi and asked them to apply for a "ration card," which allows people living below the poverty line to buy food at subsidized prices. Indians often say it is nearly impossible to obtain this kind of service - to which any qualified citizen is entitled - without paying a bribe.
In a finding that they say startled them, the researchers, Paul Pinto and Leonid Peisakhin, found that the right-to-information request was nearly as effective as bribing.
Enraged Indians have staged countrywide demonstrations lately demanding action on corruption, but the government is stymied: the current legal framework - which, of course, says it is illegal to pay bribes or demand kickbacks - quite clearly doesn't work.
This research highlights the effectiveness of RTI as an alternative way of tackling pervasive corruption. India's Right to Information Act, passed in 2005, obliges every single government department to appoint a public information officer to deal with queries from the public. That officer must reply to queries within 30 days, and if an applicant does not receive a response, she or he can take a complaint to a powerful state information commission.
The researchers divided their candidates into four groups. The first group simply sent in an application, while the second applied and attached a letter supporting their need for a ration card from a local non-governmental organization - a subtle sign that they had some local influence. The third group paid a $25 bribe, the standard sum required for this kind of service (and a huge cost to slum dwellers who earn an average of $1.50 a day). The fourth group, after applying, filed a Right to Information claim asking about the status of their application, and how long such an application typically takes.
Those who bribed received their cards in 82 days. Those who filed the RTI got theirs in 120 days. (Those who applied with neither, on the other hand, waited at least a year and might never have got them except the researchers filed RTIs on their behalf when the study was over.) If you subtract the weeks that they waited to file the RTI, Mr. Pinto noted, then the RTI took about 11 days longer than the bribe - and it is infinitely more accessible to the poor.
In its first year the RTI process was used primarily by civil servants seeking information on the amount their colleagues were paid. Gradually, non-governmental organizations began to make the public aware of how they could use the system to demand a response from government. Increasingly, RTIs are being used to investigate big corruption cases involving senior government officials - a fact that, Mr. Pinto and Mr. Peisakhin said, calls into question how long this relatively powerful instrument will be permitted to survive before powerful vested interests shut it down.
India's roaring rate of economic growth has proved hardy enough to withstand corruption, but the institutionalized systems of bribery have the effect of entrenching citizens' mistrust for the state, and of woefully impeding the effectiveness of anti-poverty initiatives. The researchers note, for example, that in the case of the ration cards for subsidized food, there are 232 million in circulation, even though only 180 million people nominally qualify - because politicians dole them out as vote-getters, and corrupt officials sell them to people who don't need them.
This experiment showed that the RTI can help even marginalized citizens fight back against these kinds of abuses, and thus increase social mobility. "This has put citizens on a different platform: in the earlier system the civil servant was like a king and we were the public. Now it is like, 'You are public servants - we are public and you are servants,'" said V. S. Goel, spokesman for an organization called Parivartan that specializes in helping marginalized people obtain information on their rights.
The results of this randomized controlled trial (an unusual means to evaluate an anti-poverty measure) came as no surprise to Mr. Goel. "Since we have RTI, here is no longer any question of paying a bribe," he said.
Oddly, RTI seems to work even though the commissioners overseeing the system rarely impose penalties on delinquent bureaucrats (for example, they did so in fewer than 1 per cent of complaints at the central level in 2008).
Nevertheless, even without penalties, the RTI claims work, in part because of the intense competition for good civil service jobs in India's vast bureaucracy (there are 17 million national-level civil servants and 40 million more at the state level). Any RTI request received is immediately registered and the handling official's name is noted, and that flagged issue can be enough to prevent a promotion.
Mr. Goel described cases where just calling up and asking for the name of the public information officer has helped people get tax refunds within days, after they had waited for years or were asked for bribes of as much as 60 per cent of the refund.