Groundviews

RTI: a Reality Check

Featured image courtesy Tasman Council

September 28 is the global Right to Information Day – a day of added significance to Sri Lankans this year since the country passed its own Right to Information Act – now hailed by the Centre for Law and Democracy as the 9th best in the world, the strongest among the new countries to enact RTI legislature.

Yet ensuring a culture of transparency and openness goes beyond simply enacting legislature.

While there have been groups actively working to educate MPs on RTI and its importance, and some public outreach and education (including the launch of a website RTI Watch by Transparency International Sri Lanka) it remains to be seen how active the average Sri Lankan will be in terms of filing RTI requests.

                                    Video from RTIWatch website

More importantly, it remains to be seen how quickly and meaningfully the Act will be implemented.

Initial signs have been worrying. On June 30, Lankadeepa reported that they were looking for 8,000 fresh graduates to be Information Officers. The Information Officer fulfills a vital task – it is they who process the RTI application from a member of the general public, decide whether or not it can be fulfilled within 2 weeks. It is also they who furnish the information within the stipulated time period. Refusal of an Information Officer to comply with furnishing information will be subject to trial in the Magistrate’s Court, and will upon conviction receive a fine, indicating that the task is not one to be taken lightly. Yet the State decided to seek for this important post among Sri Lanka’s fresh graduates, who are inexperienced in this field.

The function of the Right to Information Commission (reportedly consisting of Prof. Savithri Goonasekera, attorney-at-law Kishali Pinto Jayawardena, former judge Salim Marsoof, former Mahaweli Development and Environment Ministry Secretary Neil Rupasinghe and Prof. N. Sivakumaran) will also be vital to ensure the spirit and letter of the legislation is properly implemented.

Groundviews was fortunate to be able to sit in on the Central Information Commission hearings in Delhi recently. In one half hour session it was immediately apparent that acting as a Commissioner required the maintenance of a delicate balance – while acting as a conduit to information, the Commissioner could not act as a mediator to settle disputes. Some of the people who came before the Commission asked for proof that a particular society was fraudulent, or that a principal or teacher had been unfairly treated. In each instance, even where the appellant themselves asked for resolution, the Commissioner translated their requests into the correct language, resolving each case in a matter of minutes. Whether Sri Lanka’s Commissioners will be able to handle each case as adeptly remains to be seen.

Information Commissioner Professor M Sridhar Acharyulu

There is no indication as to whether Sri Lankans will be as active and vociferous as in many other countries when filing requests – until the process is finally put in place.

When correctly used, the RTI can help assist the most marginalised and downtrodden. Take Anjali Bhardwaj and Amrita Johri from Satark Nagrik Sangathan (SNS), who have used the RTI to ensure that villagers get much-needed rations.

“During one of our public meetings, a woman stood up and said, ‘I can’t even get my rations, what do you expect me to do with RTI?’ ” Bhardwaj said. It transpired that many of the villagers were told by the shopkeepers that the Government had not released the share of rations to them yet, and went without the rations that the Government was supposed to provide for them.

Bhardwaj and Johri filed RTI applications asking for the list of beneficiaries who were supposed to get rations, as well as the stock register and the sales register of each shop. When the information was sent across, it was found that the rations were indeed sent across to the shops. The sales registers were entirely fabricated – when SNS showed them to the close knit community, they found many of the names were false. Many of the villagers signed off on their cards with their thumbprint – and when traced, the actual recipients said that the thumbprints on the registers did not match their own – and that in fact they had not received the promised rations for years. As a result of these applications, the villagers had, for the first time, definitive proof of the corruption that took place in terms of food distribution. As a result, for the first time, the state took punitive action against the grocery shop owners, cancelling their licenses, as well as the senior officials who had allowed the corruption to rage unchecked.

                               Anjali Bhardwaj – courtesy Getty Images

In another instance, the SNS discovered that politicians would visit low income settlements in the run up to an election, claiming that their homes were due to be demolished. In the same breath these politicians promised that their homes would be spared – as long as they voted for them, of course. After filing RTI applications for the settlements which were due to be demolished, it was discovered that many settlements were not even on the list – and that the politicians were using fear to ensure they remained in power.

The Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI) have also used RTI to ensure much needed police reform – certainly something that strikes a chord in Sri Lanka, where police torture is systemic. Through consecutive RTI applications, CHRI found that there was massive underreporting of crime in many districts in Delhi, since police only recorded what they perceived to be the most ‘serious’ crime.

Applications such as these would have far-reaching implications in Sri Lanka, for those who rely on pensions and social security benefits – and indeed for the application of many essential services, such as water supply and electricity. Yet without a vibrant community willing to file applications, a Commission willing to adjudicate fairly, and government organisations willing to proactively and progressively provide information, the RTI Act is doomed to failure, progressive as it might be. Already, the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative has flagged the fact that officials are not heavily penalized for flouting the law. With heavy backlogs of cases, it is unlikely that the Magistrate’s Court would levy the proposed fines in a timely fashion, heightening chances that officials would get away with a mere slap on the wrist.

On September 28, President Maithripala Sirisena tweeted that right to information was now a “fundamental right” to Sri Lankans.

As encouraging as this statement is, it remains to be seen whether this right will actually be realised in the spirit it is intended.

If you find this article relevant, you may find our earlier articles on the topic “Information and Power: the evolution of RTI” and “The Right to Information Act: Finally a reality?” instructive. We also compiled a video answering some frequently asked questions on the topic.