Wednesday, 11 June 2014 00:00
Floods expose things. Not just basic emotions such as fear and generosity, but these same expanses of water sweep up corruption. Torrential rains last week dislodged vast layers of road exposing the shoddy carpeting and road building work undergoing in many parts of the country. They raised fresh questions on the development work taking place and how such investments, usually done with loans, will affect the economy.
Sri Lanka’s capacity to fight the multitude of corruption tacked onto infrastructure projects is weak. The taxpayers have a right to know how their money is being spent. In fact most average people are critical of the blatantly-displayed corruption, especially on road projects but they have next to no access to Right to Information (RTI) because it has been stemmed in Sri Lanka by the present Government, which has repeatedly stifled attempts to bring transparency laws before Parliament.
The right to information is a universally-acknowledged but rarely legally implemented need. In countries that have particularly vulnerable political situations, it is even less followed. But Sri Lanka remains one of the few countries in the region that so far has not moved even a step forward on such crucial legislation.
For example, it took decades for the Indian Government to pass its Right To Information (RTI) Act in Parliament. It was finally managed in 2005 after a long road of negotiations and attempts by Members of Parliament to dilute its powers. Recently it gained even more teeth and election results across the Palk Strait have proven that corruption is taken very seriously over there.
The RTI Act enabled the implementation of freedom of information legislation in India on a national level to provide for setting out the practical regime of right to information for citizens. Under the provisions of the Act, any citizen may request information from a public authority that belongs to the Government or is part of the State. The institution is required to reply expeditiously or within 30 days.
The Act also requires every public authority to computerise their records for wide dissemination and to proactively publish certain categories of information so that the citizens need minimum recourse to request for information formally. This gives an idea of why a RTI Act is of paramount importance in a country like Sri Lanka.
What made the real change in India, even more than the passing of the Act, was the coordinative action taken by civil society to educate the public about the powers they have been vested with through the Act.
Sadly, Sri Lanka is still lagging behind in this process. The UNP presented a Right To Information Bill in Parliament in 2011, only to be hopelessly outvoted. That was the second time that the document was presented. In the earlier instance it was withdrawn as the Government had pledged to present its own RTI Act, which has failed to appear till now.
The fact that blatant corruption and wastage happens across the board in this country is an open secret and the RTI Act would give the people the power to bring their representatives to book. Drafting out and passing a RTI would be pointless unless it is implemented properly for all wrongdoers. The protection of average people who bring these charges must also be assured as otherwise no one will use the Act for its intended purpose.