Kath Noble

Let the people have what’s theirs

Posted in The Island by kathnoble on March 3, 2010

What to look for in the proposed Right to Information Act.

We don’t often have much in the way of good news to report. These days, a vast amount of ink is wasted on what are no more than petty issues – who will contest where, in alliance with which parties and under what symbol. These are supplemented by the all too common stories of accidents, murders and suicides, the occasional abduction and a whole lot of double dealing and crookedness. The best we can really expect is an announcement that a trade union has decided to postpone its strike or that the Army has found explosives before they could be used. Life can get pretty depressing.

That’s why I was pleased to read of the efforts being made by the Ministry of Justice and Law Reforms to prepare a potentially transformative bill for introduction to Parliament after the election. I am talking here about the Right to Information Act.

There was a time when such legislation was considered the privilege of developed countries. People thought that governments couldn’t be open and successful at the same time, so those states that had a lot of work to do to pull themselves up would have to maintain a culture of secrecy. It was seen as just another right to be curtailed for the greater good.

This is no longer the case. While only 22 countries had passed bills like the Right to Information Act in 1995, by 2005 that number had gone up to 70.

Even countries that are not democracies have accepted the idea of openness. China passed its version of the legislation the year before last. India, a nation that is home to 500 million of the world’s one and a half billion poor people, and which might therefore be expected to have plenty to keep its bureaucrats busy already, took the plunge back in 2005. Sri Lanka was starting to look rather backward in the face of what is clearly a global trend.

Openness is good for the economy, it is now widely accepted. We need to involve people in the governance process in order to address corruption and the mismanagement of public affairs that costs developing countries so dearly.

It’s not just about passing a law, of course. As in most things, implementation is the key to success.

Research shows just that, as was made obvious by a review of the Indian experience that was published a few weeks ago. It was overwhelmingly positive about the impact of the legislation, while concluding that much remained to be done.

The main problem is oddly simple. Only 15% of the population knows that there is any such thing as the Right to Information Act. That drops to 4% of the poor, according to some estimates.

After decades of regarding information on what they’re up to as the property of the State, bureaucracies need to be pushed to change. Officials in India have tended to ignore requirements for proactive disclosure. In one state, over 80% of local government offices make people file requests for information that the law obliges them to publish as a matter of course. Some 75% fail to display information explaining how to file requests, while the vast majority of officials assigned to deal with the public are unhelpful or even hostile. Half of them don’t have a copy of the legislation.

The media has played an important role in raising awareness, but this has brought only limited results in a country with such high rates of illiteracy. Curiously, journalists have rarely made use of the law themselves.

Sri Lanka could well do better. However, this would mean planning a campaign.

This may seem rather unlikely in the circumstances. The Government hasn’t even initiated a public debate on the contents of the legislation. A report in another newspaper some weeks ago indicated that lawyers had been working on a draft until Parliament was dissolved. Why they had to abandon the task just because an election had been called remains a mystery, as does much else about the Right to Information Act. This is hardly in the spirit of the law.

There is a massive gap between rhetoric and action in Sri Lanka. Inspiring words such as those spoken by Mahinda Rajapaksa when he was first running for the presidency about a ruler being no more than a temporary trustee and not the owner of the future of his people’s children have rather lost their appeal. We don’t believe politicians any longer, and for good reason.

Ranil Wickremasinghe’s administration prepared a Right to Information Act during its brief spell in power, but it was never made into law. It isn’t clear what has changed. This is surely one of the many things that the public should be told if the Government is really serious about openness.

Meanwhile, it would be as well for the rest of us to start talking about it. Pressure always helps.

The Indian version of the legislation was discussed for months before it was passed. More than a hundred amendments were made in the process.

Criticisms of the original draft focused on the excuses it allowed the State to employ to deny requests for information, from blanket exemptions for anything considered a risk to national security or even just the national interest to equally unspecific and no less worrying justifications for concealing information on the basis that it might require excessive resources to find and hand over. The final bill made these rather narrower and more clearly defined.

The other key concern was the lack of an upper limit on the charges that could be imposed.

This too was solved, but the review of implementation demonstrated some of the hidden costs involved in filing requests for information. Although the standard fee is only Rs. 10, with even this being waived for the poor, the process is estimated to require many times this amount. More than 25% of people using the Right to Information Act have to make at least three visits to a government office. That requires transport and in many cases the loss of daily wages.

One of the most interesting elements that was introduced to the Right to Information Act during the public debate is a clause setting out the responsibility of officials. If they fail to complete the work during a fixed period, they are personally liable for a fine.

This is quite an innovation, and it is one of many. India has positioned itself as a leader in the world of openness.

The Ministry of Justice and Law Reforms could usefully take note of the other major difficulty that has been experienced in India. As well as knowing that there is a Right to Information Act, people need to have confidence that the oversight mechanism works. Unfortunately, surveys have found that the majority believe that it is a waste of time and energy to appeal decisions. They consider the authorities to whom they would have to turn too close to the bureaucrats who denied their requests for information in the first place. Even state information commissioners are often regarded as worryingly unsympathetic, many of them being retired public servants. The process is lengthy and delays are the norm.

The more we study the experiences of other countries, the better for Sri Lanka. Then when Parliament comes to review the legislation, people will be sufficiently informed to raise questions.

I sometimes fall into the trap of wondering if politicians will ever do anything useful, watching their exploits. It is at such times that I try to think back a year to when Prabhakaran was still lurking in a dark corner of the island, plotting death and destruction in his ill-fated quest for Eelam. The country has changed a lot since then, which is an excellent reminder of how things that once seemed impossible can be done with a little determination and focus. We really ought to be more hopeful.

As for good news, the Right to Information Act certainly qualifies. It just needs to be put into practice.

This article was published on the editorial page of The Island on March 3rd, 2010. The internet version can be accessed here.

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