By Namini Wijedasa
President Mahinda Rajapaksa last week categorically told newspaper editors that a law to protect the people’s right to information was unnecessary. He said instead that he could ensure access to information excluding what was covered by the Official Secrecy Act and national security.
If a journalist lodged a request, the president said, he would make the information available. One of the editors pointed out that freedom of information was vital to fight corruption. The president shot back that such matters could be referred to the Commission to Investigate Allegations of Bribery and Corruption which the government had “strengthened.”
The president was once a strident advocate of freedom of information. But his assertions last week raised several concerns. First, it is questionable whether any government has the prerogative to decide that the country must not have a law guaranteeing its citizens the right to information about how their tax money is spent. It is their money and somebody else is spending it, often irresponsibly and without due account.
Second, anybody else floating the claim that the Commission to Investigate Allegations of Bribery and Corruption is now stronger would have been laughed out of the room. None of the relevant laws were amended to make the commission more forceful. On the contrary, the 18th Amendment to the Constitution diluted it further by letting the president choose and appoint all its members.
Third, how would citizens get information on which to base their complaints to the Bribery Commission when there is no law to mandate the release of such material?
The president was quoted in one newspaper as telling newspaper editors there were no secrets in Sri Lanka. When he was minister of fisheries, “some outsiders who attended meetings at my ministry had copies of cabinet papers in their hands,” he said. Not anymore. Today, even amendments to the Constitution are secretly approved by ministers who are themselves told precious little about them.
Also during this meeting, the president refused to disclose his secretary’s salary and maintained that a report recently released about irregularities in arms purchases was for his eyes only. It was his decision, he said, whether or not to release it to the public.
India streets ahead
The situation in Sri Lanka is starkly different to that in neighbouring India where a Right to Information (RTI) Bill was passed in 2005. Since then, citizens of diverse backgrounds have used the law countless times to expose corruption and to hold public officials accountable. Page after page on the Internet reveals details of their actions and offer insight into the types of information that Indians are entitled to examine – and Sri Lankans are not. Entire websites devoted to RTI advise the public on how to implement the law. Hundreds of advocacy groups help Indians file RTI applications.
Below are some reports related to the use of the RTI in India, all unapologetically scrounged off the Internet.
— In 2010, Santosh Koli went to a government agency in New Delhi with a RTI application to inspect records about sewers in the slum area of Sundar Nagri. The sewer piping was incomplete since 1984, forcing families to use government toilets. The agency did not have files on the sewage system. But workers came to Sundar Nagri a few months later and connected each house to the sewage pipes.
— Another RTI application filed by Santosh exposed how seven million rupees worth of road repair work was completed on paper but not on the streets of Sundar Nagri.
— Chandarbhavan, a 38-year-old machine operator from east Delhi, had his life savings of Rs.65,000 wiped out from a public bank account after officials faked his signature and withdrew the money on his behalf. A RTI application asking to see the forged documents prompted the money’s return.
— Shivaji Raut, a 50-year-old high school science teacher uses the RTI to unearth corruption in Maharashtra. He exposed how arms and liquor licences were unlawfully awarded to relatives of politicians; illegal sales tax exemptions were given to windmills erected by corporations that some politicians had stakes in; and how state funds reserved for implementing social programmes for the poor were pilfered by officials.
— Satish Shetty, 38, an active campaigner in the city of Pune, used RTI to expose land scams and abuse of power by local officials. He was killed.
— In June 2011, the Central Information Commission set up under the RIT asked ministries to post details of ministerial foreign tours on their websites. The CIC said the salary, allowances and other perks received by ministers should also be routinely disclosed.
— On a RTI application made to the Union Labour Ministry, it was found that 6,669 children across several states were working in eateries and households even after a ban on child labour came into force.
— The Rajiv Gandhi Rural Housing Corporation Ltd., offers a subsidy of Rs.10,000 for the poor to build houses. The corporation released a payment for 60 people to the Tauk Panchayat (local government body) of Jaipur which in turn was supposed to disburse it to an implementing agency. Even after five months, the executive officer did not release the money. Rajni filed a RTI application to the corporation asking about punishment for such officers among other information. Ten days later, the executive officer came to the doors of the implementing agency and handed over the cheque.
— It was revealed on a RTI application that Union Minister of State for Food Processing, Subodh Kant Sahay had misused his power to transfer an officer. Hitesh Verma was an executive in the public sector company – Coal India Limited. He was transferred to its subsidiary company – Central Coalfields Limited as deputy sales manager. His mother, Saroja Bala Verma filed an application seeking clarification on 22 points related to the transfer. She also requested information on why and on whose insistence her son was transferred. Coal India admitted that the transfer was based on the reference from a VIP. When Coal India did not name the VIP, Saroja sent a letter to the Indian prime minister demanding his name. The prime minister’s office ordered the Coal Ministry to release the details. Subodh Kant Sahay was named. Hitesh Verma then moved the Jharkhand High Court which stayed the transfer and issued notice on Subodh Kant Sahay seeking an explanation.
— Madhu Bhaduri’s mother lives in a block of flats and had been complaining for a month about a blocked sewer. Madhu spoke to a junior engineer at the relevant government agency since the sewer was now a stinking breeding ground for mosquitoes. The engineer said he would look into it and did nothing. Madhu filed a RTI application asking, among other things, for the daily progress report made on her complaint, the names and designations of officers handling her complaint and what departmental action will be taken against defaulting officers. She also asked whether the agency would reimburse the medical bills for health problems caused to residents as a result of the blocked sewer. A few days later, the junior engineer called to say he was standing outside her mother’s house and getting the sewer lines cleaned. He later went to her mother’s house, touched her feet and told her that he would take care of the problem.
— Rahul Chaubey, a 23-year-old resident of Ulhasnagar, brought about transparency in the accounts department of his government-funded college. With the help of his friend, Ankit Namdev, Chaubey filed nearly 20 RTIs after noticing that fees were collected for services they didn’t get. As a result of the applications, the college was forced to refund Rs.350 to each of the 15,000 students whose collections they could not account for.
— Kolebor Kalindi, a farm labourer with a family of seven, is from a community belonging to ‘Scheduled Castes.’ He got an educated farmer, Basudeb Kumar, to file a RTI about the amount of ration a Below Poverty Line card holder is entitled to under the public distribution system. His ration shop would usually give him one or two kilograms of rice a week. But after the RTI, he found out that he was entitled to five kgs of rice every week, at the rate of Rs.2 per kg. A movement against the dealers followed and families in his locale now get more rations than before. In the last two months, the villagers filed 100 RTI applications. More than half have got responses.
— Jagabandhu Kumar, 37, a farmer, filed a RTI at the panchayat office demanding information about the provisions under the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) scheme. His younger daughter, who is five, went to an ICDS centre. At times, they were not given midday meals or the teachers didn’t take classes. Armed with the written reply from the panchayat secretary, Kumar took up the issue with the ICDS centre. He claims midday meals have now become regular, with better food quality.
These cases just scratch the surface of the RTI phenomenon in India but they help flag a crucial question in Sri Lanka. What are our politicians and public officials doing that they do not want us to know? And are Sri Lankans not entitled to the services they pay-and vote-for? Do they not deserve the same level of accountability and transparency that the RTI affords ordinary Indians?