After decades of struggles by environmental and justice movements, India enacted the Right to Information (RTI) Act in 2005. With more teeth than the American FOIA, the Act for the first time opened large swathes of government files to public disclosure and scrutiny. Scholars have generally dismissed transparency legislations like the RTI as symptomatic of neoliberal economic programs and the World Bank-led agenda for ‘good governance’. They have seen such laws as inadequate to the task of a fundamental restructuring of society. However, I argue that struggles around information must be contextualized not in the neoliberal provenance of transparency laws, but in the historical sociology of state power and corporate capital, in India as elsewhere. Specifically, I examine how lawyers, journalists, researchers and activists engaged the state via the RTI Act on the issue of Covid-19 relief and mitigation, as well as the pattern of evasion and clamping down that marked state responses. I suggest that struggles over information, far from floundering against the limits of neoliberal governance, have in fact effectively diagnosed the actual, non-liberal character of India’s political economy. And this accounts for both the act’s transformative potential in terms of activating a more engaged citizenship, as well as the intensity of push-back from the state and corporate capital.
Aniket Aga is an Assistant Professor of Geography at SUNY Buffalo. His interests span science & technology, democratic politics, and development geography. His book titled Genetically Modified Democracy: Transgenic Crops in Contemporary India won the 2022 Ludwik Fleck Prize from the Society for the Social Studies of Science (4S). He works with journalists and activists, and his research has appeared in journals as well as outlets such as Article 14. Along with Chitrangada Choudhury, he has co-directed Seed Stories, a documentary film highlighting issues of Indigenous agro-ecology, heirloom seeds and agrarian change in the eastern ghats of India. The film premiered in January 2024 at the Kolkata People’s Film Festival and is part of the official selection for the Chennai International Film Festival. He has previously taught at Ashoka University and Krea University in India and the University of Michigan Ann Arbor.