Kusul Perera (Daily Mirror)
Will the Govt play with the RTI Act?
In a timid, subservient society there is no demand for information
The Right to Information (RTI) Act will come into effect today, February 03, 2017.
The Sri Lankan RTI Act is ranked 10th best in the world.
Sri Lanka has scored 121 out of a possible 150 in a rating programme founded by Access Info Europe and the Centre for Law and Democracy based in the USA. The government is making good use of it for image building in the international community.
Much of the work that went into make the RTI Act what it is, was by two eminent personalities; internationally renowned legal academic Kishali Pinto Jayawardne and internationally recognised former UNESCO employed Communication Specialist Wijeyananda Jayaweera, whose draft inputs as we’ve heard, were not always readily accepted by State and political representatives.
That reluctance will certainly remain and will lead to bottlenecks in implementation.
To begin with, the RTI Act is placed against an unwanted, unnecessary provision in the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, even before the RTI Act was completed. In fact there was no necessity to define the parameters of citizens’ right to information in Constitution 14a (2) introduced to the 19 Amendment.
If the Yahapalana government was serious about citizens’ right to information, it needed only a mentioning as a Fundamental Right in the Constitution. Instead the Government has made certain it could interpret the scope of the RTI Act through the Constitution that would supersede any and all provisions of an Act.
Members of the RTI Commission will have to give teeth to the RTI Act and abide by the Constitution as well. The Commissioners are therefore left with the burden of ensuring information is provided as requested by citizens according to the RTI Act, without contravening the Constitution.
That burden would be quite heavy if the war affected citizens from North and East decide to use the RTI Act to trace their missing family members.
Applications for the purpose will then be handed over to Information Officers in Police Stations or in area Superintendent’s office. But they can be refused citing the Constitutional Provision in 14 a(2) that says, despite the citizens’ right to information, any information that “…..in the interests of national security, territorial integrity or public safety, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals and of the reputation or the rights of others…” will not be made available to citizens.
Such refusals lead to interpretations for which the RTI Act provides for applicants to appeal to the RTI Commission for a ruling.
Thus any refusal on such requests for information will no doubt have appeals reaching the RTI Commission. Such appeals would test the ability of the Commissioners to honour the right of citizens to have information they seek and also stay within the Constitution.
A Catch-22 situation it would be for the Commissioners and certainly for those, who, during the Rajapaksa era, flew to Geneva annually to defend Human Rights and against crimes allegedly committed during the war.
In essence, this Constitutional Provision under 14a (2) may leave the RTI Act irrelevant to the war affected North and East.
Now, that the OMP Act has also been left deep frozen, denials under the RTI Action information they most need and have been demanding for almost seven years, would only mean this Government too plays for publicity and for the Sinhala South.
The RTI Act would thus become a tool for the Sinhala South if they wish to hold the Government “accountable”.
That possibility too is wholly uncertain given the political reluctance of this Government to have the RTI Act functioning.
As exposed by Namini Wijedasa in her Sunday Times (January 29, 2017) write up titled “RTI Act Gazetted sans RTI Commissions’ fees, appeals rules” the Yahapalana Government ignored the RTI Act in allocating funds in Budget 2017 for its secretarial and office functioning.
The President had realised this after he said the RTI Act would be made effective on February 3. The RTI Commission also needs to be housed with staff and all these need money, which the Wickramasinghe Government has ignored.
Thus the President has the Parliament to allocate a beggarly sum of Rs.3 million from the Rs.1.8 billion supplementary estimate.
Added is the fact that even the Commission is not transparent in their own work.
To date they have not publicly spelt out what their programme of work in getting the RTI Act functioning and their time schedule in having that work done.
If such a work plan had been made public, Namini Wijedasa would not have had reasons to expose those rules, appeals and required fees and the date from when the public can file applications for information have not been Gazetted.
Also, the public need to know how the RTI Commission Secretariat would be staffed, for its efficiency decides how effective the Commissioners could be. In addition to these hurdles, even if crossed, there are two major draw backs the Government will have to work on, but doesn’t seem to have a political will for.
The State bureaucracy has over very many decades evolved as “sole custodians” of information, they treat as “State Secrets”.This has led to an office culture that denies access even to unimportant trivial information, often to the colleague in the adjoining table. This jealous possession of information in office culture that is lethargic, inefficient and also corrupt, make information a saleable commodity, the public needs to buy through “some contact”. In very corrupt contexts, the higher ups also don’t allow information out, which they feel would be to their disadvantage. This culture of “we decide what can be given” is a heavily entrenched factor in the State administration, even politicians run into with fury.
Deputy Minister Ramanayake’s very recent spat with the Divulapitiya Divisional Secretary (DS) and their administrative association immediately deciding to protest over Ramanayake’s alleged nasty verbal hit back over the phone, is all about a corrupt, lethargic and inefficient officialdom refusing to provide information, the public needs to know.
This parasitical culture cannot be changed by expensive cosy workshops and seminars that teach about the RTI Act and the procedures that ought to be adopted in offices. This needs to be treated as archaic and rusty culture of backward men and women.
It needs redefining the administration in terms of social responsibility.
It is the whole system that needs a shakeup, including Sri Lanka Institute for Development Administration (SLIDA) that had been turned into a business venture.
That change also needs a political will by the Government, which is sadly lacking. The Government is also not willing to be accountable despite all rhetoric. This Government cannot be any more open than the Rajapaksa regime for reasons no different.
For the RTI Act to swing into force, it needs the Governmental push that is not there and the social pull which is also missing.
In Sri Lankan context our society and the general public also don’t know they have a right to demand information.
In fact it is the demand for information in 1994 by ordinary farmers in agrarian Rajasthan, who were organised as “Masdoor Kishan Shakthi Sangatan” that eventually paved the way for the Indian RTI Act in year 2000.
We lack that determined aggressiveness. Our social culture is a dependent culture. It is not even a consumer culture in a free market economy.
In this very timid, subservient culture there is no demand.
It is the supply that decides the market. The middle-class too wouldn’t demand information. They would rather pay for that right than stand for it.
Thus the norm which is now the rule is for the public to go after some political catcher to get anything done.
They wouldn’t want to apply for information as they feel and believe, as “political power” brings answers and quite fast too.
A few days ago a trishaw driver told me:
“They don’t work in our country. They’ll take ages. It is easier and quick to go through our member (Talking in Sinhala the “member” he meant was the LG politician).
Placed along a rotten office working culture, the public mind set too goes against the RTI Act. Unlike and different to all other Acts, the RTI Act would only be functional and effective, if people start using it.
Therefore, there is a serious need to galvanise conscious, committed support in society for the RTI Act to be effective and rightly implemented. It needs tremendous effort against political reluctance of the Government to have it working, against the existing State office working culture and against public attitudes that prefer the status quo in a dependent social culture.
It is a gloomy picture no doubt. But reading the reality right, a few concerned and conscious citizens kick starting a pilot project in a district or two, demanding information about hospitals and health, about DCB allocations by elected MPs, could change the whole picture, though not overnight. In short, here is an Act that should not be allowed to lapse, however difficult it is to have a good breakthrough. And to be optimistic, the strength of the RTI Commission matters too.