In the rural district of Bihar, India, a community centre is packed with people. It’s hot and full, but the crowd is silent. Standing at the front of the room, a young man in his twenties is telling his story. While speaking, he breaks into tears.
The man’s name is Altaf*. He and his family live on a plot of land nearby. Altaf grew up there, and now works there – it’s his livelihood and his home. Having stayed there for so long, his family are legally entitled to the land, but there’s a catch – they need to obtain a land entitlement certificate. And getting hold of the document is not as easy as it might seem.
Altaf applied for his land entitlement at the land revenue office more than two years ago, but he never heard back. Every time he visited the office to enquire about the stage of his application, Altaf says, staff demanded he pay 2,000 rupees (US$32).
Unable to pay, he was terrified of what could happen next. Altaf comes from a state where almost half are landless, pressure on the land is growing, and it’s not uncommon for people to be forcibly removed from their land. He had seen this happen to his neighbours. Like the many others who filled the room, he had come to our meeting for help.
“We offer trainings to help rural people understand and uphold their rights,” says Akanksha who works for our chapter in India and helped organise this meeting in 2012. “The sessions aren’t just about sharing stories. They’re about giving vulnerable people the knowledge they need to fight back against those who abuse their power.”
In Altaf’s case, help came in the form of India’s freedom of information act.
“It might seem surprising, but public information requests are a very effective way for tackling extortion,” Akanksha explains. “When a citizen sends in a request, local bureaucrats are forced to provide an official update on the status of an application – often, this is enough to stop them withholding documents and demanding bribes.”
This is what happened to Altaf. Following the meeting, we helped him file a public information request regarding his land entitlement application. After the first request was not acted upon, we filed another, prompting the district authority to initiate an investigation.
Unable to provide a legitimate reason for delaying Altaf’s application, the local land office restarted the process. It took six months, but Altaf and his family received their documents, and with it the assurance that they can stay in their home.
Their success sparked a chain reaction – suddenly the officials began approving other pending applications. What’s more, it’s giving others the courage to break their silence on extortion. “Citizens were previously scared to speak out, or felt there was no point,” says Akanksha. “Altaf’s story is helping us change their minds.”
*Name has been changed
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