My study examines the extent to which the Right to Information Act (RTIA, introduced in India in 2005) can be used by poor households to access public resources. It addresses the following issues: Are the poor aware of RTIA? Can RTIA substitute bribery? Why do the poor depend upon mediators to access public resources? How do the poor negotiate with meditators to create their own spaces? I hypothesize that in hierarchal societies, where the gulf between the poor and government bureaucracy is huge, greater transparency benefits only the middle classes whereas the underprivileged are left to struggle with brokers to access public resources. Drawing on empirical evidence from two categories of poor households—those residing in urban versus rural areas of Uttar Pradesh (UP)—I take the example of Below Poverty Line (BPL) cards. These cards entitle the poor to numerous subsidies: on housing, food, cooking fuel, pensions and scholarships. The distribution of these cards, however, is a politicized affair—as eligibility norms are commonly violated: Certain communities are oversupplied with BPL cards whereas individuals in dire need of food subsidies never receive theirs. These cards have in fact emerged as coveted objects, as the poor are willing to pay any ‘official price’ to obtain these cards.
The RTIA provides space for democratization by enabling citizens to challenge the local power holders who influence public resources. It empowers citizens with better information regarding their rights. This well-designed regulatory tool can substitute bribery and help the poor challenge the dominant groups. But poor face several constraints: They are unorganized, unaware and illiterate—and are unable to use RTIA. This has prompted the poor to adopt several ways to negotiate with everyday politics. These negotiations combine cooperation with conflict: They are not conducted under formal or informal settings even as the poor refuse to kowtow to the authority of the elected representatives.