It took an Indian Minister to come to Colombo and extol the virtues of a Right to Information (RTI) Law and explain how it has empowered the ordinary citizens of his country.
Ironic as it is, this piece of progressive legislation was first introduced in Sri Lanka even before India did, but it was stillborn. A Freedom of Information Bill was drafted by a committee headed by the then Attorney General with stakeholders involved in the process. The Bill was approved by the Ranil Wickremesinghe cabinet in 2004 but the premature dissolution of Parliament by then President Chandrika Kumaratunga put paid to the efforts. India passed the law a year later, enhancing the spirit of the law by making it a citizen’s ‘Right’, even more than a ‘Freedom’ and called it a Right to Information Law. And we now must countenance an Indian Minister telling us what a good law they have.
Jairam Ramesh, the Indian Minister of Rural Development and Drinking Water and Sanitation, which are major issues in India, told a seminar on poverty alleviation in Colombo on Thursday:
“One of the good things which have happened in India during the last decade is the idea about rights-based approach. I have spoken about the Social Security Guarantee Act but that was not the first right to be introduced, in fact there was even more revolutionary legislation introduced which is the Right to Information; it is the right to information that has transformed the administration in our country. It is the right to information that is beginning to be opening of books in Panchayats, in local bodies, in muster-rooms. Today you can go to my ministry’s website and you will find in the muster-rooms all the people who have sought employment in all the villages of India. It is available on the website, along with the photographs, so this is what transparency can do in the implementation of rural development programmes”.
In India, the campaign for an RTI began from the grassroots in the state of Rajasthan and worked its way up to the national level and Parliament. In Sri Lanka, this campaign was initiated by the media organisations. Civil society was slow to pick it up and unlike in India, organised civil society and non-government agents are few and far between. Either way, the end result is to empower the citizen with information.
The simple example given is – ‘if you entrust your money to someone to do your marketing, you would check the bills and ask the person how the money was spent. Similarly, why can’t this principle be extended to a government that has been entrusted with the people’s purse?’
The culture of accountability, especially in public finance, is woefully absent in Sri Lanka. That is why more and more instances of wastage, corruption and mismanagement get exposed and reported. Often, billions of rupees are lost to the country, yet no one is accountable, no one is punished. And, the people, are none the wiser as to where the money has gone, and why so.
More than one hundred countries around the world have a Right to Information Law. Some call it a Freedom to Information Law while others refer to it as an Access to Information Law, but they are all the same thing. All major countries in our region have this law. Sri Lanka stands out like a sore thumb. Time will surely run out for the Government that will be found severely wanting and accused of deliberate dilly-dallying in failing to bring in such a progressive law. It is only a government that wishes to manipulate public funds by keeping its people in the dark, in blissful ignorance, that will refrain from bringing in such a law.
Unfortunately, the Government is more focused on restricting the flow of information than giving access to it. This law is not about the breaking news of the day, but about how public funds are spent by those who have control over its expenditure.
A government that claims it is a ‘people’s government’ can no longer ignore modern legislation that empowers citizens. Very soon this will be a fundamental human right. The sooner the Government comes to realise this, the better.