March 09, 2014 00:00 By Trudy Harris
After years of fighting corruption in India's bureaucracy, Subhash Agrawal calls it quits
Down a dark, muddy alley, tucked away from the chaos of New Delhi’s old quarter, one of India’s most tireless corruption fighters is hard at work.
Subhash Agrawal has exposed hundreds of cases of wrongdoing, graft and discrimination in India’s notoriously corrupt bureaucracy – all through Right to Information (RTI) applications.
His spacious house, at the end of the alley, is a repository of paperwork, with folders and thick RTI files jammed into floor to ceiling wardrobes and stacked on shelves.
“I’m a single man army. I get 40 to 50 letters a day from people asking me to file requests. I have to read them, file them, undertake correspondence, attend appeal hearings,” says Agrawal.
But after years of doggedly unearthing “irregularities” and with more than 6,000 applications filed, Agrawal has decided to call time on what has become a full-time job.
“I’m like a machine whose gears, wheels are breaking down and it’s not working. I’m overburdened with requests, not only from the commoners but also from officials in top posts,” Agrawal says.
Agrawal, a prolific letter writer who holds a Guinness World Record for his correspondence to newspaper editors, said the number of senior officials wanting his help to unearth suspected misdeeds by subordinates has snowballed in recent years.
“They want to reform their own departments but if they are unable to do so, they seek my help in filing their petitions to try to expose what they think is wrongdoing,” he explains.
India passed its RTI Act – similar to the Freedom of Information law in the United States – in 2005 as a way of promoting accountability and good governance by giving people access to official paperwork.
Rahul Gandhi, the ruling Congress party’s de facto prime ministerial candidate, in January singled out the RTI Act as one of the most important achievements of his government’s decade in office.
Hailed as a key tool to breaking through India’s graft-ridden and closed public service culture, the act has emboldened hundreds of activists and whistleblowers to take up the cause.
But few have been as prolific as Agrawal, who hands over his juicy snippets of information – often released reluctantly by state and national governments after endless appeals – to local media.
“He really has made a major impact which people are increasingly aware of,” says Manoj Mitta, a senior editor with the Times of India newspaper.
“He has broken new ground in numerous areas like the judiciary. Through his applications, he forced Supreme Court judges to disclose their assets, forced them into more transparency than they wanted.”
Agrawal’s discoveries – including information over preparations for the scandal-tainted 2010 Commonwealth Games – have proved irritating for the Congress-coalition government, and at times just plain embarrassing.
The Planning Commission, which plots the country’s economic future, was left red-faced in 2012 after he unearthed a $54,000 (Bt1,7 million) bill for upgrading toilets apparently designated exclusively for top officials.
In another case in 2012, he made public the parliament speaker’s official foreign trips – 29 in 35 months (which amounted to one trip nearly every 37 days) costing almost $1.6 million, including four visits to Switzerland.
Last year, the country’s former president Pratibha Patil was forced to return 155 official gifts, from foreign dignitaries to India during her time in office, after it was discovered she loaned them to a school owned by her family.
“There will be champagne corks popping in North Block and other corridors of power when news of his retirement gets out,” says another Indian newspaper editor, referring to top ministry offices in Delhi.
Agrawal said he was inspired to take up the RTI cause after hearing a lecture from India’s corruption-crusader and new political-star Arvind Kejriwal on the eve of the bill’s passing.
Corruption is set to become a top issue at national elections due in coming months, thanks largely to Kejriwal who has tapped into people’s anger over corruption that permeates all levels of Indian society.
Agrawal said people today were more aware of their right to official information, and felt more empowered to challenge government wrongdoing, something he credits to Kejriwal and RTI.
As a result, “there is a fear, a psychology among wrongdoers”.
“Everyone is afraid now, bureaucrats and even ministers fear their wrongdoing will be exposed.”
But Agrawal said unless he receives NGO or institutional support to cope with the escalating number of requests for help to expose these wrongdoings, he will sign off for good, once his current cases close.