Photo courtesy of Roar Media

That Right to Information (RTI) is a tool for increasing transparency, accountability and better governance practices is widely accepted. But what does research and data say in that regard? During a research study by the author analysing the linkages between the use of right to information and decreased corruption/increased transparency in Sri Lanka, there were numerous stories to illustrate the significant inroads that RTI has made in its relatively short span by impacting the lives of people at the grassroots.

Isn’t it all the same water?

During one of his travels Mr. J. Suresh Kumar, an RTI activist who has over 300 RTI requests to his credit, found that the price of packaged drinking water bottles varied from company to company. They were priced between Rs. 70 to 100 or more. Additionally, restaurants sold water bottles at different prices. He noted that there was a marked difference in wholesale price and retail price that ranged anywhere between Rs. 17.50 to 50. He wanted to get more information regarding the varying, high prices. The RTI application with the Consumer Affairs Authority was the seed to bring about a gazette notification to fix the maximum retail price for packaged drinking water. This is a good example of how an RTI request can be the instrument of change. A product that was not subject to any price ceiling was brought within regulation due to the efforts of a single person through an RTI request. An interview with Mr. Suresh Kumar revealed that RTI activists such as himself lack the necessary support system to do more but their commitment to bring about a change has been the driving force.

A fight for land allocation

There have been many an instance where documentation pertaining to land or irregularities in allocation of land according to welfare schemes have been brought to light through the RTI process. In one such case study, a parcel of land was allocated to Mr. Lionel Silva, a farmer residing in Kantale. The allocation under the land kachcheri was in 2011; many others who were assigned land through the same scheme were given their allocations but for Mr. Silva, it was a distant dream. He would have to wait until 2018 for his dream to become a reality. In September 2018, after attending a workshop conducted by the National Collaboration Development Foundation (NCDF) on RTI, he learnt of the RTI Act and decided to file an application. Through his RTI request, he asked about the reasons for not receiving a plot of land despite the land kachcheri held in Suriyapura, Kantale in 2011.

In December 2018, the Information Officers of Mahaweli Authority had responded attaching the information report compiled. The report stated that he was eligible to obtain a plot of land and that it would be allocated from the Halambayaya lands. Further letters from the Sri Lanka Mahaweli Authority confirmed this.

Gender empowerment

From the data made available by The Social Architects it was seen that in the districts of Ampara, Nuwara Eliya, Jaffna, Kilinochchi, Matara and Polonnaruwa women applicants outnumbered their male counterparts. Almost 60 per cent of the RTI requests were made by women. In a particularly striking example, rural women banded together in Kilinochchi to consistently file RTI requests to the local hospital asking about the insufficiency of trained medical personnel despite financial allocations and were able to improve the quality of health care provided.

The relatively small dataset (about 50 entries) shared by the Women’s Development Centre Kandy revealed that most of their RTI requests (about 32 per cent) were in areas of public utility services concerning issues like broken electric bulbs, fixing distribution of letters, bus fares and public transportation facilities where information was received in a small number of requests but issues pertaining to the requests were resolved in a higher number of requests. There were also a fair number of requests on issues of services and responsibilities of members in the Pradeshiya Sabaha.

RTI requests on welfare benefits leading to greater transparency

Several RTI requests pertained to obtaining of State samurdhi benefits but the information received was not only of individual gain but of larger public interest. An example can be seen in the RTI request filed at Department of Samurdhi to request information with regard to the number of the estate workers who had been awarded samurdhi benefits and the requirements that should be met to receive them. In another instance Amara Forum, a grassroots organization based in the North, successfully filed RTI requests to publicise the criteria for the samurdhi scheme.

In celebrating the successes of RTI processes it should not be forgotten that several requests also go unanswered. An RTI request filed by a journalist to request information pertaining to the natural disasters and the remedies given to the estate workers during 2010 to 2018 was not successful despite the fact that he had filed the same request with several public authorities upon instructions given to him. Initially, he filed the request at relevant District Secretariats. The District Secretariats informed him that the information was not in their possession and instructed to obtain it from Ministry of Disaster Management. The Ministry had in turn directed him to the National Disaster Relief Services Centre. However, the information was not provided completely by any of the public authorities.

Small steps but big impact

When the publicly available data (news reports gleaned from mainstream media, social media, videos from Twitter and Facebook feeds from February 2017 to February 2020) were analysed, it was observed that in several instances the issue(s) pertaining to the RTI request were resolved, going beyond mere information disclosure. In at least 11 per cent of the success stories that were publicly reported from 2017 to 2019, the issues concerning the request were resolved.

An RTI request was filed at the Galnewa District Secretariat Division by villagers of Galnewa Pradeshiya Sabha seeking information as to why an auditorium had not been open to the public for a period of two years even after its completion. The RTI request led to immediate action being taken to open the auditorium for public use. A person of Kantale, through an RTI request to the Kantale Post Office, requested information on the reason for mail not being delivered. This led to immediate action where the issue was resolved.

A flood victim of the 2017 floods filed an information request on the flood victim funding provided by the Divisional Secretary of Kamburupitiya. The victim obtained information that he had been allocated Rs. 282,432 from the fund. He received Rs.100,000 out of the total amount on the date of submitting the RTI application and also received the information he requested within half an hour of making the request.

Several people in Vavuniya have had to struggle with housing allocation despite State housing schemes. An RTI request regarding construction of 90 houses by the State resulted in 400 houses being built.

In another example, the villagers of Balapitiya Pradeshiya Sabha filed an RTI request concerning the dumping of garbage on village land. Action was undertaken to temporarily pile sand on the accumulated garbage until its removal. An RTI request filed at the Ministry of Water Supply and Drainage by residents of Ratmalayaya in the Puttalam District relating to lack of access to clean drinking water led to immediate action being taken to provide it.

RTI Commission and information disclosure

The study revealed that the RTI Commission had ordered information disclosure in 84 per cent of appeals (including information disclosure in part) that were filed from 2017 to 2019. Aside from the many orders that have been widely reported in the media, there have been several others such as employment/recruitment/promotion schemes of state officials where information has been ordered to be disclosed.

The RTI is a rights-advancing process to ensure that common people have a powerful tool in their hands to enhance transparency, accountability and better governance. While several stories reflect micro impact, for a larger and more widespread macro impact it is necessary to cultivate a culture of proactive disclosure among public authorities. The release of information should be the norm and refusal only an exception.

The author is a lecturer, legal researcher and consultant specialising in Technology, Media and Communications Law. This article is part of a larger study by the author “Analyzing the linkages between the Use of Right to information and Decreased Corruption/Increased Transparency in Sri Lanka” funded by UNESCO IPDC.