The Right To Information Act 2005, Transparency and Transitions
In 2005 India passed the Right to Information Act (RTI) — a technical milestone in law that is altering the balance of power in India. It is today, by all accounts, the most cited law in Indian courts – and is shaking India to its foundational roots. Following is an example of how the law is being used with land registries.
In several Indian states outdated methods of registering land have been updated with public databases that reveal both the ownership and history of each parcel. In theory, full transparency of the details in each and every property transaction promotes efficiency and fairness. The objective was to reduce the transaction costs (including bribery), thus allowing those with less access to the legal system a better shot at a “fair shake” when buying, selling, or hypothecating property.
That’s in theory. In reality, public databases have been a boon for lawyers and fast buck artists. It appears that land chasers (a backhanded reference to “ambulance chasers” in the U.S.) are pursuing every possible defect in title, and doing their best to wrest title from the current owners (or at least greenmailing them to fix defective titles for a fee). These challenges are not only aimed at small landholders, but also after title defects in property held by wealthy landowners who have already paid the requisite bribes to assure good title (notice I didn’t say insure). In the past, both the rich and poor felt secure in their good title – that’s why they paid the bribes in the first place. However, in the opaque world of “engineered land registry offices” the buyers and sellers had no independent means of verifying that they received what they had paid for – they had to rely on the honesty of those they had “retained”.
Today, property transactions are taking longer, and bribes are more expensive than at any time in the past (this last part makes sense, as services can now be verified). The land registries are a mess, and they view RTI requests as an intrusion into their once exclusive domain. Add to this mix the owners that are being targeted, and you have the recipe for litigation and dissent. Thus, those who once were in a position to consummate transactions under a veil of secrecy are not pleased with the RTI activists, and are responding — in some cases with deadly force.
From Eric Hoffer’s 1963 book, The Ordeal of Change (1976 edition) —
“Even in the freest society power is charged with the impulse to turn men into precise, predictable automata. When watching men of power in action it must be always kept in mind that, whether they know it or not, their main purpose is the elimination or neutralization of the independent individual – the independent voter, consumer, worker, owner, thinker – and that every device they employ aims at turning man into a manipulatable ‘animated instrument,’ which is Aristotle’s definition of a slave.
On the other hand, every device employed to bolster individual freedom must have as its chief purpose the impairment of the absoluteness of power. The indications are that such an impairment is brought about not by strengthening the individual and pitting him against the possessors of power, but by distributing and diversifying power and pitting one category or unit of power against the other. Where power is one, the defeated individual, however strong and resourceful, can have no refuge and no recourse.”
Analyzing the conflict in this framework, the RTI is disbanding the absolute power of a corrupt shadow government and stripping them of the powers they wielded behind their veils of secrecy. They are — in short — being deposed as petty bureaucratic tyrants. Tyrants, even small ones, will throw tantrums. Here, the weapon of choice to deal with corruption is transparency (at least in round one). In my less than humble opinion, they are doing the right thing. While the unintended consequences of the reforms are currently running counter to the stated objectives, these issues will be all be sorted out in time.
Transparency is not a panacea; it is simply an elimination of economic friction. Transparency always adds information, information leads to knowledge, and knowledge will reveal opportunities. In time, the opportunity to exploit this gulf between knowledge and ignorance will fade.
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Copies of the Right To Information Act, in English other languages, are available.