Journalism through RTI: Information Investigation Impact


Shyamlal Yadav

  • Citations
  • Add to My List
  • Text Size

  • Chapters
  • Front Matter
  • Back Matter
  • Subject Index
  • Copyright


    To those who have been killed fighting for information under RTI and to those who are still fighting worldwide

    List of Abbreviations


    Association of Brazilian Investigative Journalists


    Appointment Committee of Cabinet


    Asian Development Bank


    Attorney General


    All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam


    Bhartiya Janta Party


    Biju Janta Dal


    Biochemical Oxygen Demand


    Bureau of Police Research and Development


    Border Road Development Board


    Bahujan Samaj Party


    Customs and Central Excise Service


    Cabinet Secretariat


    Central Board of Direct Taxes


    Central Board of Excise and Customs


    Central Bureau of Investigation


    Chief Electoral Officer


    Central Ganga Authority


    Central Information Commission


    Chief Minister's Office


    Commissioner of Police


    Central Pollution Control Board


    Communist Party of India (Marxist)


    Central Public Works Department


    Central Secretariat Services


    Central Vigilance Commission


    Central Water Commission


    Disproportionate Assets


    Dr Ambedkar Foundation


    Department of Economic Affairs


    District Election Officer


    Director General of Foreign Trade


    Director General of Income Tax


    Director General of Police


    Data Harvest Conferences


    Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam


    Dissolved Oxygen


    Department of Expenditure


    Department of Financial Services


    Department of Personnel and Training


    Defence Research and Development Organization


    Election Commission of India


    Extraordinary Leave


    Economic Offences Unit


    European Parliament


    First Appellate Authority


    Foreign Contribution Regulation Act


    First Information Report


    Freedom of Information


    Foreigner Regional Registration Office


    General Administration Department


    Ganga Action Plan


    Global Investigative Journalism Conference


    Group of Members


    Human Resource Development


    Indian Administrative Service


    Indian Council for Agriculture Research


    International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights


    Indian Economic Service


    Indian Foreign Service


    Indian Forest Service


    Indian Institute of Public Administration


    Institut Européen d'Administration des Affaires or European Institute of Business Administration


    Immovable Property Return


    Indian Police Service


    Indian Statistical Service


    Janta Dal (United)


    Jan Shikshan Sansthan


    Krishi Vigyan Kendra


    Life Insurance Corporation


    Ministry of External Affairs


    Members of European Parliament


    Ministry of Home Affairs


    Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan


    Member of Legislative Assembly


    Ministry of Defence


    Ministry of Environment and Forests


    Ministry of Finance


    Ministry of Human Resource Development


    Member of Service


    Ministry of Urban Development


    Member of Parliament


    National Advisory Council


    National Common Minimum Programme


    Nationalist Congress Party


    National Campaign for People's Right to Information


    National Crime Record Bureau


    National Capital Territory


    National Democratic Alliance


    National Database of Arms Licenses


    New Delhi Television


    Non-governmental Organizations


    National Security Guards


    Open Government Information


    Official Memorandum


    Personal Assistant


    Pay and Accounts Officer


    Public Cause Research Foundation


    Public Distribution System


    Public Information Officer


    Prime Minister


    Prime Minister's Office


    Reserve Bank of India


    Right to Information


    State Information Commission


    Samajwadi Party


    State Pollution Control Boards


    Special Protection Group


    Unique Identification Number


    United Nations


    United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization


    United Progressive Alliance


    United Progressive Alliance (2004–09)


    United Progressive Alliance (2009–14)


    Wet Openbaarheid van Bestuur


    Do not speak to a single person, man, woman, or child—that was the instruction from my investigative journalism professor at the University of Southern California, Los Angeles, as she asked each of us, first-year graduate students, to pick up a slip of paper from a shoebox she had brought to class.

    On mine was scrawled a street address in downtown LA.

    This was 1988, I was barely months old in the city, and there was neither Google nor a cellphone, but yes, the slip of paper and a public bus led me to a crumbling townhouse and stacks of official records.

    Records in the civic hall, fire department, and motor vehicles department; homeowner records; and even voters' records showed the owner was a registered Democrat—these records helped me write the story of a slumlord who owned the house; the story included his court records and a list of his many violations.

    And yes, I did all this without speaking to a single person.

    That was my first lesson in investigative journalism: trust in data; look at records. They speak volumes and rarely lie. They are your most trustworthy sources. Learn the art of mining them.

    Shyamlal Yadav is growing to be a master of that art.

    His remarkable book shows how he has used records to discover a story, to investigate it, and to reveal what would have remained hidden.

    Long before social media undermined the salience of facts, long before “post-truth” became a word, Shyamlal understood the power of records—in a system where, unlike in the USA, records are notoriously concealed, trapped in files, wrapped in red tape, of course, but most importantly, kept firmly behind a wall of secrecy that is not only hard to crack but opaque as well.

    Until the first hammer came along, in 2005, in the form of the Right to Information (RTI) Act.

    Using this act as his veritable weapon, Shyamlal was, arguably, the first full-time journalist to start chipping away at that wall. With great effect.

    The stories documented in this book show that effect.

    From detailing corruption cases against top bureaucrats to members of Parliament employing members of their families as personal staff on taxpayer expense; from foreign travel of ministers to the status of funds earmarked for cleaning rivers.

    Stories that go beyond the 5 Ws and 1 H—who, why, what, where, when, and how—of the classical inverted pyramid. Stories that need rigor, records, investigation, and explanation, and the subsequent backing up of interviews and field reporting. In short, good journalism.

    As Shyamlal's editor at The Indian Express since November 2011, I have had the privilege and the pleasure to be a part of his process. I have also become one of his strongest advocates. For he and his work serve as role models in Express newsrooms across the country.

    That's why I am delighted that he has, in this book, not only explained the reporting behind each story but also written an invaluable how-to section. This makes the book a must-have and a must-read for reporters, editors, researchers, all those who teach journalism, and, of course, citizens too, who can see for themselves what a ₹10 demand draft and a powerful law can do.

    This book couldn't have come at a more relevant time.

    A lot of what passes off as journalism these days is the smart quip on Twitter, the cheap shot, the put-down, the rant, or the rave. As governments and establishments get more impregnable, as leaders reach out to their constituents on social media in oneway conversations, as institutions start pulling up the drawbridge in the name of efficiency, there is a need today, more than ever, of journalism that asks questions and that strives to hold those in power to account, be it in government or business or the political system, Left or Right.

    Shyamlal's work is a testament to the power of that journalism.

    I hope—and I am sure—this book will inspire the next generation of reporters and editors as they fight secrecy to get to the stories that need to be done.

    Raj Kamal Jha Chief Editor The Indian Express


    It was an unusually quiet day in April 2007 at India Today, where I was employed, when I got an e-mail from the news coordinator S. Sahay Ranjit on behalf of the editor Prabhu Chawla. I learned later that the e-mail had been sent to every correspondent at India Today. Prabhu wanted us to file at least three ideas that could be investigated through the RTI Act.

    Little knowing what I was getting myself into, I filed the following three ideas: first, to know the status of anticorruption cases against IAS, IPS, and IRS officers registered in the last 15 years from the CBI; second, to get details of the 10 oldest pending cases and their status from the Supreme Court; and third, to get details of foreign trips made by union ministers from the PMO. Once my e-mail reached Prabhu, Shankkar Aiyar, the then managing editor of India Today, called me to his room. All he said was, “You should focus on those stories that can be explored through RTI.”

    It was that simple, and that's how I started using RTI for my stories. I must confess I had only a faint idea of what the RTI Act was, let alone know how to use the transparency law for my work. I did remember reading about the implementation of the RTI Act but nothing more. Though I had not filed any RTI application till then, I soon realized that one can use the RTI Act without even knowing or reading it, and that is the beauty of this historic legislation.

    In the coming days, I worked on ideas and conceptualized many more stories by taking the RTI route. During the course of my work, I have filed several thousand RTI applications to government offices, starting from Lutyen Hills right down to the southernmost parts of the country, from the President's Secretariat and Prime Minister's Office down to district collectors and district superintendents of police. Collecting, collating, and crosschecking replies received from every corner of the country has been an exciting journey of experience for me. Very few of the stories were possible on a single RTI, whereas for one story, to collect nationwide data on arms licenses issued to private persons, I had to file over 700 applications spanning four years. It was a gigantic task of deciphering data and information. But, it was worthy and doable, as Shrimad Bhagwad Gita (Chapter 4, Verse 17) says

    karmano hyapi boddhavyam boddhavyam cha vikarmanah akarmanaśh cha boddhavyam gahanā karmano gatih

    (Must understand the nature of all three—recommended action, wrong action, and inaction. The truth about these is profound and difficult to understand.)

    After all, this work has given me a new identity. The idea to write this book came from several quarters: journalists, RTI users, and government officials dealing with RTI who were aware of my work. Using RTI as a tool for my stories has been the most important and rewarding part of my professional life, and by writing this book, I wanted to share with my readers this part of my journalistic journey. The emphasis is less on theory and more on practical aspects, that is to say, text is important, but the real work lies between the words that I would like the reader to feel and understand. In a nutshell, this is a tale of RTI-based stories.

    In most chapters, I have described how ideas were visualized, how information was collected through persistent efforts, how the story developed, and how the subject was followed up keeping an eye on its rightful impact. These are examples of prompting the system to reform through offbeat journalistic work. It is in no way an attempt at self-boasting; rather, it is a desire to share my journey with interested readers and, in particular, the students of journalism who want to become fellow travelers in this field.

    I hope this book will be useful not only for journalists but also for RTI activists, researchers, and government officials dealing with RTI, and for any concerned citizen who wants to use RTI as a tool to reform the system.


    As they say, “No duty is more urgent than that of returning thanks.” I would like to express my deepest gratitude to Raj Kamal Jha, Chief Editor of The Indian Express for his wholehearted support. It is his guidance, patience, and faith which has helped me pursue and crack big investigations. My other pillars of support are my Editor Unni Rajen Shanker and Executive Editor Ritu Sarin, who have always been helpful with ideas and provided lots of encouragement. I admire their professional commitment and painstaking attention to detail.

    My regards and respect to Aroon Purie, Editor-in-Chief of India Today, who in his editorial referred to me as “indefatigable.” Also my sincere thanks to my previous editors particularly Prabhu Chawla, Shankkar Aiyar, and Jagdish Upasane in India Today who pointed me to, continuously gave me ideas, and allowed me to work on my own. I thank Raj Chengappa and Dilip Bobb, editors at India Today, for their help and advise whenever needed.

    Also, I am thankful to Ashok Damodaran ‘Damu’, Ashok Kumar, Sharda Ugra in India Today and Rakesh Sinha, Monojit Majumdar, Ajay Shankar and Y.P. Rajesh in The Indian Express for anchoring my investigative stories. I must thank all the editorial staff of India Today and The Indian Express who edited my stories and made them reader-friendly.

    I am thankful to all those who have encouraged me and advised wherever needed during the writing of this book: Brigitte Alfter and Staffan Dahllof (Denmark), Ides Debruyne (Belgium), Martin Rosenbaum (UK), Sheila Coronel and Jennifer LaFleur (USA), Mark Lee Hunter (France), Marcelo Moreira (Brazil), Anuska Delic (Slovenia), Umar Cheema (Pakistan), and Jitarth Rai Bhardwaj (Australia) from abroad; from India, Ram Bahadur Rai, Prabal Maitra, K.S. Sachidananda Murthy, Sushma Yadav, S.K. Singh, Sushant Singh, Yogesh Deshmukh, Anshuman Yadav, Omkar Chaudhary, Ajmer Singh, Ashutosh Shukla, M.P. Yadav, Rajesh Malhotra, Vidya Bhushan Arora, Sheokesh Mishra, Nalin Chauhan, and Mahendra Parihar. Most of these people, including former Chief Information Commissioner Satyananda Mishra, have not only encouraged me but also given their valuable advice and inputs when needed. I am also thankful to Sudhir Pillai who helped me give shape to the chapters and made them readable. At SAGE Publications I wish to thank Shambhu Sahu and Rajesh Dey who relentlessly advised me to develop the manuscript into a book, and Guneet Kaur Gulati who managed the production of this book.

    Born and brought up in a place called Bahadurpur, which is 60 km away from the district headquarters of Pratapgarh in UP, to illiterate parents, I had never thought of receiving so much exposure as I am getting today as a journalist. The fundamentals of all this are that my late father Ram Sumer Yadav was always concerned about my sangat (company) and my mother Pyari Yadav always preached about achchhi aadat (good habits). My teachers Jagdev Prasad Maurya, Devendra Pratap Singh, V.P. Singh, and Chandramohan Mishra not only gave me textbook education but also taught me how to dream and why patience is important. Maurya, my teacher at the primary level in a government school and Devendra Pratap Singh, my teacher at high school level always fought to ensure that my merit was not crushed by some of their caste-biased colleagues. I treasure their invaluable presence in my life. I always remember my teachers and try to follow their advice and respect their words along with my guide–philosopher late Jyoti Swarup whose one-liner I have adopted as my style: Jo bhi kaam karo, deewanon ki tarah karo (Whatever you do, do it with passion). Another line I adopted, while working as a journalist, is of Saint Kabir: Na kahu se dosti, na kahu se bair (Neither friendship nor enmity with anybody).

    Without mentioning my better half Renu, niece Lalita, son Shikhar, and daughter Shreeti, the story would not be complete. As a matter of fact, during the last three years that I have spent in writing, mostly on leave days, my family was always around me. Without their support, it would not have been possible.

  • About the Author

    Shyamlal Yadav is one of the pioneers of the effective use of RTI for investigative reporting and asking questions of the powers that be. His work on India's polluted rivers, Streams of Filth (India Today, December 30, 2009) was selected by UNESCO as one of the 20 best investigative reports across the globe. A member of the investigative bureau of The Indian Express, his reports like foreign travel of ministers and bureaucrats, MPs appointing their relatives as their personal assistants, bank staff putting their own money to reduce the total number of zero balance Jan Dhan accounts have had an impact and influence. He is the only two-time winner of the prestigious Ramnath Goenka Award for Excellence in Journalism in Investigative Reporting category. Shyamlal has been awarded with the Lorenzo Natalie Journalism Prize by the European Commission for Development, Brussels; Developing Asia Journalism Award by the ADB Institute, Tokyo; National RTI Award by NDTV-PCRF; Statesman Rural Reporting Award; and Ganesh Shankar Vidyarthi Award for Excellence in Journalism among others. He has addressed several conferences on RTI and Media at a range of platforms including Columbia University, New York at Rio de Janeiro; European Investigative Journalism Conferences at Brussels; Global Investigative Journalism Conference at Kiev; Asian Investigative Journalism Conference, Kathmandu. Having earlier worked at Jansatta, Amar Ujala, and India Today Shyamlal is presently Senior Editor at The Indian Express.

    • Loading...
Back to Top

Copy and paste the following HTML into your website