[Editors note: Prof. Samarajiva is at the time of writing, the Head of the Policy Planning Group, Milinda for Mayor Campaign. Groundviews is critical of all political parties and candidates, but not equally so. Prof. Samarajiva’s article is published here as the continuation of a lengthy exchange on the topic of RTI on Milinda Moragoda’s Facebook page. Please also read Milinda Moragoda: The gap between promise and reality.]

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It appears that the commitment given to recognizing the Right to Information (RTI) by Milinda Moragoda in his Mayoral campaign has created both excitement and confusion.  This is good.

The confusion appears to originate in the conflation of the national and the municipal.  Some insist RTI cannot be implemented at city level when the central government has expressed no enthusiasm for it at the national level.  Obviously, the Colombo Municipality cannot legislate for the central government.  But it can legislate for itself, for functions that come under its authority.

Pragmatic RTI

Can the CMC give any citizen of Sri Lanka the right to request and obtain information on, say, the loan terms of a large construction project undertaken by a Ministry of the central government?  No.  Can it create a right to obtain information from a Ministry of a provincial government?  No.   Can it recognize such a right in relation to a subject under the authority of the Colombo Municipal Council, such as the allocation of stalls in a municipal market?  Yes.

It may not be perfect, but this is how devolved power works.  It is one thing to talk abstractly about devolution of power under the 13th Amendment Plus/Minus; Quite another to grasp how power can be pragmatically exercised in conditions of devolved authority at the local-government level.

There are fears and negative perceptions about RTI.  Some may not think they are reasonable, but they are reasonable to those who hold them.  I have run a government organization; I can empathize with them.  Strident argument is just one way of addressing these concerns.  Quiet demonstration is another.

RTI is a complicated right.  It is not like simply turning on a switch.  It can have unintended consequences.  Fewer records may be kept of decisions because officials fear queries.  Personal information may be released with dire consequences for unsuspecting third parties.  Most RTI statutescontain exceptions to address these concerns.  In some cases the exceptions will be so broad, or will be so broadly interpreted, that the right is made almost meaningless.  Getting the balance right is not easy.

One could of course try it at the national level and tweak until it is right.  Alternatively, one could try it out at a lower level of government on a small scale as a pilot; learn the lessons of what works and what needs fine tuning and scale up.  There is no one right way.

There is no certainty that the CMC implementation will be scaled up.  But those who wish to win RTI at the national level can leverage the experience in Colombo.  It will, at least, do them no harm.

Why RTI is important to this election

Milinda Moragoda’s plans for Colombo cannot be implemented without a clean, efficient administration.

His policy platform promises both a Citizens’ Charter (CC) and RTI.  CC is essentially a service-level agreement between the service giver and the citizen.  The service giver promises the service will be provided in x time if all the requirements are met.  If not, remedies are specified.  The RTI is more general; the information requestor need not be a direct party, e.g., a citizen can request information on how permission was given to fill wetland, even she has no direct interest in the land or the transaction.

Both CC and RTI require proper maintenance of files or records, a function that has sadly deteriorated in many, if not most, government offices.  But efficient service delivery cannot occur without proper maintenance of “files” in whatever form.  The pressures that will be brought to bear on individual officials by the CC and RTI to deliver services on time and to produce documentation of prior decisions, respectively, will reinforce efforts to reengineer CMC work processes and make the organization clean and efficient.

CC and RTI are essential elements of the plans to improve service delivery by the CMC.  RTI is good in and of itself.  But it will also help reform and improve municipal government.  Milinda Moragoda is committed to RTI for both reasons.

Is Milinda truly committed to RTI?

Milinda Moragoda ran one election campaign with RTI as a major plank in his platform, possibly the only one who ran ads on this subject.  That was in 2010 and the party was the Sri Lanka National Congress, a constituent of the UPFA.  He lost that election.

There is not much point in asking a person who was not in Parliament when the RTI bill was introduced as a private member’s bill about why he did not support it.  He was not in a position to do so.

Prior to that, he had the Justice and Law Reform portfolio for a few months.  During this time he attempted to enact the RTI law.  After losing the election, he continued to speak publicly on the topic, in Sinhala and Tamil, both in print and on electronic media.  If people thought he had gone quiet, it was perhaps because they do not engage with Sinhala and Tamil media.  For example, a rerun of a Didulana Diyatha program addressing RTI was shown the week of September 13th.

He has been very clear about his absolute commitment to the RTI plank in his platform.  His policy platform is no secret to the UPFA and the SLFP.  It was presented to the President and launched with the participation and endorsement of the General Secretary of the UPFA and the Treasurer of the SLFP.

What should RTI proponents do?

Support Milinda Moragoda’s campaign.

But for whatever reason, if they do not want to do that, there is little reason to bash him for it.  He is committing to implement it in one small corner of Sri Lanka.  The battle for RTI in the rest of the country remains.  His effort does not get in the way of anyone’s efforts in the larger space.  There is room enough for multiple approaches.

Crafting a good piece of RTI legislation for the city level will require help.  The draft developed while Milinda was Minister of Justice and Law Reforms will be our starting point.  We’d be happy to adapt it for the city level in a participatory way, starting even before the election.  Join the work.

RTI is a promise, at this stage.  There is only one way to ensure promises are kept.  Help him win, help him get RTI recognized and see.

  • Dear Rohan,

    Milinda Moragoda: The gap between promise and reality goes into more detail why I don’t believe in Moragoda’s promises to enact RTI in particular, and in the candidate in general. This partisan difference set aside, a simple question, asked repeatedly be me and others on Twitter and Facebook as well.

    Why hasn’t Moragoda declared his assets as a candidate?

    It’s my right to know. It’s his obligation to publish. He didn’t in 2010. He hasn’t to date. He is breaking the law. Do you want my vote for someone who breaks the law?

    Sanjana

    • CheeLanka

      If Milinda Moragoda is breaking the law of the land by not declaring his assets in public, can someone with legal knowledge and eniough guts challenge him a court of law? Can he be disqualified from standing for election and/or from being confirmed if elected? Where are the legal activists in Sri Lanka when you need them?

    • CheeLanka

      Now that we have had pearls of wisdom from his eminence PeeBeeJay, all we need to make this debate even richer is Sa-Na Silva!

  • P B Jayasundara

    Rohan Samarajiva and Milinda Moragoda are old friends. This is not a new-found love. When Moragoda is Mayor, Samarajiva Snr and Jnr and Sujatha all think they will have access to power. But they don’t understand that Gota is the man behind Moragoda and without his approval Moragoda will not be able to do anything for Colombo.

    If and when Moragoda wins you will slowly see the Samarajiva trio shifting their alleigence to Gota because… I can see Indi saying this in his blog in the future “Gotabhaya is changing things and because change is always good I will support him”

    [Edited out] As has been proven on many occasions it’s very dependent on who they can make the most out of. Right now they stand the best chance of making it big if their friend Milinda wins so they back him. The next logical step is for them to go all out and become full-blown Rajapaksa lackeys. Remember I said this today. This is soon coming.

  • sameena

    valid point, Milinda Moragoda is an empty politician. He lives in a world of idealism. I wonder how he intends to change the idealism into reality when he cannot express himself at a press conference organized by him.

  • Prof Samarajeewa’s rebuttle sounds convincing. But not for long. There is a fundamental Issue with Mr Milinda Moragoda’s pledge, and its practical applicability (brilliantly highlighted before by Sanjana). That is; it is not congruent with that of H.E. Mahinda Rajapakse’s ideology. Whilst H.E. Mahinda Rajapakse slammed a R2I bill, Milinda approves it? We have noted how politicians fail when they try to take a different path from that of the leadership. This Tango will have no friendly moves in it at all. If you attempt to implement, it can only be adversarial.

  • stanobey

    For all the ‘people politics’ that Moragoda seems to stand for – I think its sounds pretty lame that Dr Samarajiva says that – since he was not in Parliament he could not support the bill. C’mon – you dont have to be in Parliament to take a stand – Dr Samarajiva knows it better than anyone.

  • CheeLanka

    Dr Sam refers to the Didulana Diyatha TV program. Have you seen it? Milinda’s command of the Sinhala language is worse than his muddled policy thinking. He is not a gifted orator but voters forgive it if the candidate is a proven performer. Milinda is neither. Now poor Sinhala proficiency by itself is not a disqualification, projecting Milinda as people’s candidate must take some real hard work.

    How about the people’s candidate coming to a LIVE debate with his ardent critics, in Sinhala or English, on TV? This is how they do things in his beloved USA.

  • Dear Rohan,

    Let’s forget about RTI once the election is over – Moragoda doesn’t even answer requests for information as a candidate. This is cogent example of the degree to which his campaign, which you are closely associated with, has descended to – https://www.facebook.com/mmoragoda/posts/248395541862960

    Sanjana

  • CheeLanka

    Citizens’ Charter (CC)? Must be a bit like the Workers’ Charter that was prepared and waved around by a certain politician when he was Labour Minister some years ago. These documents are not worth the paper they are written on in the feudal land that Lanka has become. Colombo is not an island by itself, no matter how much Milinda Moragoda wants Colombo City voters to believe so.

  • President objects to Milinda’s “right to information” policy

    Thursday, 22 September 2011 12:3 Lanka News Web Hits: 351

    The President has objected to several clauses included in the UPFA mayoral candidate for the CMC, Milinda Moragoda’s policy statement, a senior government minister said.

    The President had been annoyed with Moragoda for including that he accepted the “right to information” policy without inquiring from either him or the other alliance leaders.

    The President has informed Moragoda to receive the approval from Minister Dullas Alahapperuma before publishing any policies under the UPFA and to refrain from mentioning about the tight to information.

    The Rajapaksa government rejected two draft bills presented to parliament by UNP Deputy Leader Karu Jayasuriya on the right to information on two occasions.

    This was copied and pasted from http://www.lankanewsweb.com using a proxy site, as the lankanewsweb site has been blocked in Sri Lanka by the Government.

    I wonder how Mr.Moragoda will convince people about the Right To Information when nothing can be done without Rajapaksa’s approval?

  • Namini Wijedasa

    I, as a journalist, have tried repeatedly in the past to extract interviews out of Minister Moragoda. I’m sure he knows and remembers this. He did once grant an interview to a foreign TV station on my request but never, ever to me. What right to information is he espousing now? How has he upheld my right to information when he had the power to do so?