Freedom,Corruption and RTI

Freedom tarnished by corrupt politicians

Next weekend, Sri Lanka marks its 69th anniversary of Independence. There is, no doubt, much to celebrate, none more significant than the fact that the citizenry are a free people, and masters of their own destiny.

Many still say that Sri Lanka’s freedom was achieved without a struggle; that it was a by-product of India’s freedom struggle and World War II that weakened the British Empire which was grateful to its subjects (now the Commonwealth) who fought shoulder-to-shoulder with them to defeat Nazi Germany – and that such an easy path to Independence is never fully appreciated by the people. That is not entirely so. Sri Lanka had its own struggles in 400 years of colonial domination.

Recently, the President re-gazetted the names of several Kandyan ‘heroes’ who were termed ‘traitors’ by the British rulers. 1915 saw race riots triggered by the ‘Divide and Rule’ policy that is still perpetrated by Western powers in relatively newly independent nation-states. This is part and parcel of neo-colonialism.

This 1836 Cartoon added by TW from Internet Image result for independence cartoons

Many advances have taken place since Independence in 1948, especially in the health and education fields. The political leaders of the newly sovereign Sri Lanka felt the long oppressed people deserved these benefits, but the growing welfare state, with free rice also given to the people, ran up big bills that had to be paid for these giveaways.

Exports did not bring in sufficient funds and today Sri Lanka, like many other economically developing countries, has the dubious distinction of balancing most of its budget with the remittances of exported labour. Funds for infrastructure development have had to be obtained through foreign loans, riddled with corruption allegations that have now reached epic proportions building up to a debt trap that is going to implode in 2019 when the loans have to be paid back. This week’s Parliamentary debate on the Central Bank scandal of 2015 and 2016 is a compelling story of our times. The debate itself was a cacophony of accusations across the floor of the House, but the overall theme that political leaders are corrupt, was crystal clear.

The Opposition Leader arguably made the best contribution of the day saying that all Governments, past and present, defend corruption. If only he can speak out more on national affairs other than confining himself to regional matters. His simple message was that both the SLFP and the UNP that have ruled this country alternatively since 1948 – and are now ruling together — accuse each other but protect rogues, and that the people were getting sick of them. More so, he said, democracy was at stake with this kind of behaviour by both mainstream parties.

Corruption is endemic in Sri Lanka, trickling down from the Cabinet of Ministers to the traffic cop. Bloomberg, the world renowned economic data company, this week ranked Sri Lanka as one of the highest risk countries for foreign investors based on economic, financial and political risks. This, when the country is desperately trying to attract foreign investment.

As Sri Lanka celebrates its 69th year of Freedom, it is time the political leaders re-evaluate and re-calibrate their roles and ensures their tattered credibility is restored, both locally and overseas and that this is not a country where politics and political patronage is the last refuge of the scoundrel.

Lanka’s ‘tryst with its (RTI) destiny’

It may be a forgivable overreach in dramatic flair, but to paraphrase independent India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s stirring words to the Indian Constituent Assembly on the eve of shaking off colonial fetters in 1947, Sri Lanka’s ‘tryst with its (RTI) destiny’ will occur on Friday. This is when the Right to Information Act, No 12 of 2016 becomes operative to all Public Authorities on February 3, 2017, the day before we celebrate the 69th year of our own Independence. 

Cartoon added by TW from Internet

Image result for right to information for consumers

In this case, the long established fetters that Sri Lanka hopes to shake off will be the decades of stubborn bureaucracy in denying information to our citizens. Typically, these denials range from plundered monies in the construction of village roads to multi-millions squandered in sophisticated high finance deals, from embarrassing Government mistakes being hidden as ‘official secrets’ to a complainant in a local police station and much more.

As Sri Lanka sinks to a morass of ‘politics as usual’, the RTI Act is unquestionably a signal exception to that cheerless record — though late, at least it is one election promise that the National Unity Government has fulfilled.

This was a law that was relatively easy to draft because much of the groundwork had already been done with the draft Freedom of Information (FOI) Bill of 2004 under the then – and present Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s watch. If that Bill had not been callously brushed aside by Presidents Chandrika Kumaratunga and Mahinda Rajapaksa as it posed an obstacle for politicians to rob public money, we would have had an RTI Act at the same time as others in the region.

Though the media spearheaded Sri Lanka’s RTI Act, this is a law for all citizens, not only journalists. Ranked high on the index of RTI legislation internationally, it ensures an independent RTI Commission tasked with monitoring RTI compliance and adjudicating on disputes. There has been a pitiful lack of time to prepare Rules and fine-tune Regulations to give effect to the Act as the Commission became functional just over a month ago though we are made to understand that these duties have been complied with. The ball is now in the court of the implementing agency, the Ministry of Mass Media, which has to gazette these Rules and Regulations.

The country will be closely watching as to how the RTI Commission is enabled by the Government to function properly. We must not forget Sri Lanka’s first National Police Commission supposed to be unique in the region. Functioning with integrity, it was gradually undermined by politicians even before the 18th Amendment put paid to all independent commissions. Even though the 19th Amendment restored the status quo to some extent, the Police Commission remains a shadow of its original self. This is not encouraging. The Government cannot set up commissions, boast to the world about this and then starve such bodies of adequate resources, refuse to financially support the commissioners or deprive them of the capacity to function independently. That will be a farce and worse, a betrayal of all the peoples’ struggles. Lanka’s ‘RTI destiny’ will finally be measured only by the people’s wise and strong use of their right to know. Public servants, the media and the citizenry remain to be properly educated about the force of RTI which, in other countries, has brought corrupt politicians to account. We witness the agonising wait to bring these corrupt politicians to book partly due to the secrecy associated with the workings of the government which permitted Presidents, PMs and Ministers – and bureaucrats to escape with impunity the basic public responsibilities they owe to the people they represent.

Hopefully, the RTI Act — a great and long overdue gift to the people — will show us the way,

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