India enjoys a vigorous and vibrant civil society and one of the freest media in South Asia. Both have played an important role in placing corruption on the national agenda.
Freedom of association is fully guaranteed and the formation of interested groups is legally straight forward, resulting in a proliferation of civil society organisations and movements.
However, the 2008 Bertelsmann Foundation Report estimates that most civil society organisations are poorly institutionalised, politically fragmented and rather weak, while Global Integrity mentions cases of journalists being harassed for reporting corruption cases.
Although freedom of the press is guaranteed by the constitution, the Official Secrets Act has been used by the government in the past to censor articles or prosecute journalists, although this practice seems to be on the decline. There have been recent instances where journalists have been harassed and newspapers offices attacked. In 2006, a journalist was killed after revealing corruption in the state’s forestry services in a series of articles. India is ranked 120th out of 169 countries on Reporters without Borders’ Worldwide Press Freedom Index 2007.
Despite these limitations, there is considerable potential for civil society impact in the fight against corruption. Civil society has played a critical role in advocating for access to information, which has resulted in the enactment of the RTI Act.
This is demonstrated by example of Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS). MKSS is a small organisation formed in the 1990s which seeks to insert citizens and their associations directly into oversight functions.
It pioneered a method for the participatory audit of local spending in rural Rajasthan. To combat various forms of official corruption in public works programmes and fight for minimum wages, the organisation sought access to official expenditure documents that could be verified by MKSS workers.
Participatory audits of local government performance were conducted based on these expenditure records. The struggle to access official records led to a national campaign for legislation granting citizens a right to information that contributed to the adoption of the Right to Information Act in 2005. MKSS succeeded in getting the state government to change the local government act to include local residents directly in auditing official development schemes.
The RTI Act has opened up critical opportunities for civil society involvement in the fight against corruption. It has allowed civil society organisations to participate in debates on public spending and help them uncover corrupt practices in many states and projects. There are several organisations that are explicitly active in the anti-corruption arena, including:
Transparency International India is the Indian Chapter of Transparency International. Tl India promotes transparent practices in government, raises awareness among citizens, and partners with civil society groups working towards similar goals.
It manages various projects in different areas, on different fronts, working in partnership with other NGOs to promote good governance, raise awareness about the RTI Act, and promoting the adoption of citizens’ charters in all public institutions. It also conducts anticorruption research and social audits. India advocates with like-minded NGOs for the ratification of UNCAC.
The Centre for Media Studies (CMS) is a non-profit, multi-disciplinary development research agency which has undertaken corruption tracking surveys since 2000.
Its Transparency Studies Unit publishes a quarterly magazine that compiles research on selected issues relevant for public accountability and transparency. It has published in collaboration with Tl India the 2005 and 2007 India Corruption Studies.
Parivartan was established in 2000 as an attempt to expose corruption within the Income Tax Department in New Delhi. The movement now focuses on using the RTI Act to promote transparency and accountability in public services.