Transparency and Politics: An Introduction [I]

Posted by Zainab Bawa at Feb 08, 2009 09:30 AM |
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This is the first in a series of blog posts documenting Zainab Bawa's CIS-RAW project on Transparency and Politics. This post briefly explains how the notion of transparency has developed over time, and the changes that it has been through.

Since 2005, I have been carrying out ethnographic research on cities, particularly on issues of governance, politics and economic practices in cities. In 2004, I began working for an organization in Mumbai named Praja. Here, I was introduced to the concepts of transparency, accountability and governance.  These were the buzzwords of that time, articulated vociferously by some of the civil society organisations that had sprung up in Mumbai and Bangalore to cleanse the city of maladministration.  However, the notion of transparency originated earlier, in the 1990s. It was conceptualised as an antidote which would help to pull the state out of the morass of corruption and bribery that it had fallen into. Governments seeking loans from international agencies such as the World Bank and USAID for reforming their departments and for improving the delivery of civic services were asked to make their functioning transparent as a necessary prerequisite. 


Making government transparent mainly involved introducing the double entry accounting system for keeping a record of all the assets that the government owns (which could then be mortgaged in case the government defaulted on loan repayments), and to track all expenditures against the available balance in order to show where and how the money has been spent and to prevent over-spending. Transparency was also enforced through the imposition of some models for implementing infrastructure. For instance, in Mumbai, under the sewage disposal programme, the World Bank gave a large grant for building toilets in the slums. The actual construction of the toilets would, however, be the responsibility of community organisations working in the slums. This model was imposed because of the assumption that community organisations are more aware of the needs of the slum dwellers and they would not engage in the rent-seeking behavior which is (presumed to be) characteristic of municipal officials and elected councilors. An analysis of the toilet construction programme is available here. For our purposes, we need to keep in mind that reform in municipal budgeting and prescribing models which would reduce the scope for corruption were some of the early materialisations of the notion of transparency.


We now move to the next important phase in the history of transparency--the conception and the gradual implementation of the Right to Information (RTI) Act in India. RTI is based on the idea that the citizen should have access to any kind of information that she requires. Under RTI, transparency was sought to be implemented in the process by which the citizen asks for information from the state. This means that whereas earlier, the citizen could have acquired the same information by giving bribes to government officials and/or through various other circuits and means, now she could legitimately ask for the information and the state became bound by law to give it. There was also a stamp of legitimacy to the information that was eventually given. It could be used to challenge government officials, make the state accountable for its actions and reform governing practices in a much larger public domain than what could be possible before. I will not evaluate the RTI Act here; I will leave it for a subsequent post. But what interests me is the relationship between regulation and transparency. Can transparency be enforced through law? What implications does such enforcement have on governing practices as well for different socio-economic groups? Does enforcement cause the state to become transparent in some area and opaque in others?

The next major impetus to the development of the notion of transparency came with:

  1. The increasing penetration of the Internet in India,
  2. Implementation of e-governance policies which made it mandatory for municipalities and government agencies to publish information about their departments, budgets, and the welfare schemes and programmes on offer from them
  3. Coupling Right to Information with Duty to Publish which meant that while the citizen had the right to seek information, the state and its agencies had a duty to voluntarily publish more and more information about themselves
  4. A demand from existing and emerging civil society organisations as well as institutions such as the World Bank to improve the delivery of civic services by eliminating middle-men and all those processes which increase the possibility of bribe giving and taking,
  5. A further demand from the same organisations that the processes by which decisions are made and the reasons/logic of these decisions should be made available for public eyes, the aim here being that the decision-making process should be made uniform and ‘objective’.

It is interesting to note how the Internet gets linked to the concept of transparency. The Internet does provide a vast space for publishing information, but that is not all. The ‘virtual space’ of the Internet is very closely linked with the way we want our cities to be i.e., absolutely visible, monitorable and manageable. This can be achieved partly by making information about the various aspects of urban governance available online, and partly by publishing information about all those population groups and political practices that are classed as ‘informal’ and ‘illegal’. In the course of this project, I will try to further develop the link between the space of the Internet and that of the city by describing some of the initiatives and case studies about transparency and politics.

It is also important to remember that transparency is not a static concept. It emerges in and is shaped by contexts. For example, the increased emphasis on municipalities to introduce double entry accounting systems in order to make the budgetary process transparent, particularly between 2004 and 2006, was linked to the fact that international financial institutions, who wanted to invest in urban infrastructure development during this period, could now see what assets municipalities possessed and whether these assets could be cashed in (both metaphorically and materially) in future. In this case, transparency translated as particular kinds of visibilities for particular groups. Transparency can be also used as a trope to justify interventions such as cleaning of voter lists, introduction of identification cards and removing certain decision-making powers from local governments and transferring them to other government bodies. We will need to bear these aspects of transparency in mind as we understand it and evaluation its implications.

In this post, I have tried to explain how the notion of transparency has developed over time, and the changes that it has been through. This provides the first part of the background to the project. In the next post, I will explain what politics means in practice and how transparency now enters and modifies the realm of politics.


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Zainab Bawa

Zainab Bawa works as an independent researcher on issues of urbanism, governance and impact of technology on political practices and institutions. She is doing a project, Transparency and Politics with CIS.