Today in Mumbai, President Obama attended what is likely the first ever Expo on Democracy and Open Government. India's dynamism in the technology sector is well known, as is Gandhi's legacy in India of civic action and bottom-up change, but today's expo highlighted something very fresh: Indian civil society's harnessing of innovation and technology to strengthen India's democracy -- by fighting corruption, holding government officials accountable, and empowering citizens to be the change they seek.
Just before taking the stage at the town hall at St. Xavier's College, President Obama spent about half an hour wandering through ten booths showcasing different approaches to promoting open government and strengthening open society. He visited with the Association for Democratic Reform (ADR), a network that successfully pressed for a reform in election rules that now require candidates to disclose their financial assets, educational backgrounds, and any legal action taken against them. ADR has developed an SMS service, which allows Indians to type in their zip code, and obtain a text message providing once-unavailable background information on their candidates. In a country of 700 million cell phones, this has the power to make voting choices far more meaningful. The President stopped at a booth run by Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS), a grassroots group that uses puppet shows and folk theater to popularize India's landmark Right to Information law. He heard how Indians have filed more than two million requests for information since the law was passed in 2005. In the United States it is mainly journalists, historians, and NGOs who generally use the Freedom of Information Act, while in India the RTI is used by ordinary citizens -- many in very remote areas -- who seek to use the law to ascertain why they have not received pensions, rations, or other basic services. One of the most remarkable features of the law is that Indian officials found to have withheld information from citizens, themselves have to pay fines.
Part of what Indian civil society groups have discovered is the importance of using personal stories and publicizing factual data in order to mobilize democratic demand. President Obama spoke with Janagraaha, a group that created the website Ipaidabribe.com where Indians upload videos of their experiences in paying a bribe, in refusing to pay a bribe, and in "not having to pay a bribe" -- where Indian public servants provide services that citizens wish to celebrate. The website has received 120,000 hits in two and a half months. He also met with Arghyam, which holds public gatherings in rural India to test local drinking water. By ensuring that citizens are present to witness the water tests (the tests turns yellow for dirty water, purple for clean), the group is able to build bottom-up and intense pressure for clean water and hold local officials accountable if the water quality does not improve. A growing portion of this demand comes from women -- women's civil society groups, and women village leaders. The 73rd amendment to the Indian Constitution in 1993 mandated that one-third of Indian seats in government would go to women. More than one million women have been elected since this law was passed, and President Obama heard from the Hunger Project, which has trained more than 90,000 women local leaders. The President met a woman leader from a rural Panchayat who -- once elected -- overcame the opposition of the village leaders and mobilized her community to build the village's first-ever school for girls.
India is at the vanguard of figuring out how to exploit technology and innovation on behalf of democratic accountability. U.S.-based groups, as well as those throughout the developed and developing world, could learn an enormous amount from these efforts. And India may well become a kind of "city on the hill" that other countries look to for lessons on not only how to pull millions of people out of poverty, but also on how to strengthen democratic accountability. In his address in September before the UN General Assembly, President Obama hailed open society and open government, and he called on countries to bring to the UN next September their "specific commitments" to transparency, citizen empowerment, and democratic accountability. He also said that "part of the price of our own freedom is standing up for the freedom of others." If Indian civil society groups should choose to share their experiences with citizens and NGOs in countries that have only recently embarked on their democratic journeys, the dividend will be profound.
Capitalizing on the creativity and innovation that Americans and Indians are bringing to these issues, President Obama and Prime Minister Singh are launching a US-India Partnership on Open Government, to drive forward our respective domestic efforts and to offer our support to the efforts of reformers and activists in other interested countries.
In support of this effort, we announced at today's expo an initial commitment of approximately $1m to support the work of Indian civil society in sharing their best practices abroad, with a matching commitment of in-kind assistance by Sam Pitroda that will harness India's technical expertise to assist governments in harnessing technology, improving services, and enhancing democratic accountability. This is precisely the kind of "partnership built on shared values" that President Obama has hailed during his visit to India.
Samantha Power is Senior Director and Special Assistant for Multilateral Affairs and Human Rights