Getting RTI right

Monday, 16 February 2015 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

THE right to information is a universally-acknowledged but a rarely legally implemented need. In countries that have particularly vulnerable political situations, it is even less followed. Sri Lanka’s hope for a Right to Information Act has been rekindled by the new Government’s pledge under the 100 day programme but greater stakeholder engagement is essential. 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. Nonetheless, many stakeholders consider it to be one of the greatest milestones in that country’s march towards transparency and good governance. 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. The Act applies to all States and Union Territories of India, except the State of Jammu and Kashmir — which is covered under its own Right to Information Act. 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 thumbnail sketch 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. Extensive awareness programmes, particularly among the poor gave them the knowledge to use the Act to gain their rights. No longer could Government departments hide behind red tape and nameless officials, their very presence meant that the average people could have the right to know what decisions had been made in their name. Sadly, Sri Lanka is still lagging behind in this process. The UNP presented a Right To Information Bill in Parliament in 2010, only to be hopelessly outvoted. That was the second time that the document was presented. In the earlier instance it was withdrawn as the previous Government had pledged to present its own RTI Act. There was little hope whwn even the former President himself dismissed the matter in 2011, showing how deep disregard for the issue ran. 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. Steps are finally being taken in the right direction but oversights must not be permitted at this crucial juncture simply because of the rush ordained by the 100-day plan. At this historic moment all stakeholders including media and civil society have to make sure they get RTI right.