On the day the Right to Information Bill was taken up for debate in Parliament last week, I found myself seated next to a 5th Grader from Urubokka Maha Vidyalaya in the public gallery. At the time, our vantage point afforded a view of no more than ten MPs. Two were visibly asleep, comfortably reclined on their seats, even as the merits of RTI was being debated on the floor. During the course of the day, I witnessed shouting, screaming, the trading of insults and crass disruptions to submissions. The degree of ignorance around what is debated is, in the fullest sense of the word, incredible. Lies are paraded as truth, facts are clearly optional to the debate. Small wonder that the elected occupants of this madhouse don’t want the proceedings to be broadcast live. I wondered what Urubokka’s student and child thought of all this, as well as the other school groups that came in during the course of the day. Will he remember that it was something called RTI which was being debated, or will he remember more the shouting? RTI’s full impact on governance would only be realised at around the time he becomes a young adult. And yet, Parliament’s predominant impression on all those present that day was of an institution incapable of civility, decorum, informed debate, enlightening interest or principled opposition. What then is RTI’s future in Sri Lanka?
Unanimously passed without a vote in Parliament last week, RTI is at the same time as progressive as it is disruptive. The law will invariably engineer great resistance at all levels of government and State administration. RTI is progressive because it places the onus on public institutions to respond to queries by the public, opening them up to a degree of legal scrutiny hitherto unprecedented. The law is disruptive precisely because of this. Decades of a culture of secrecy, of hoarding information, of not releasing information in the public interest is now turned on its head. Public institutions will have to proactively disclose information to the public, and also disclose when requested. To do this, information officers will be appointed – and they will face the gargantuan task of dealing with requests from the public for information there may not even be official records around. Our bureaucracy is based on who knows whom, and what one knows about another. It is based on clientalism and nepotism, with systemic record keeping more to thwart and stifle genuine accountability, over any interest in efficiency and effectiveness. RTI turns this on its head too. Comprehensive records management now trumps favour, personal relations and convenient amnesia. And it is not just the hoarding of files in gunny bags in a dark basement. RTI emphasis that records must be kept in an easily and effectively retrievable manner that is systematic, without being hostage to the often mercurial and entirely subjective “filing systems” of individuals who happen to inhabit a particular office over a period of time.
RTI is hugely disruptive, and this is the challenge around implementation. It will bring about the most comprehensive reboot of governance in Sri Lanka ever attempted – changing the very fabric of our public institutions. The law will bring about a seismic systemic shift – from institutions that are self-serving and inward looking, to those that fear public scrutiny of their affairs, to a degree that cannot under RTI be discouraged or over the long term, resisted. Better records management means the transformation of physical records to digital, the retraining of individuals, the appointment of a new cadre better able to manage back-office operations and eventually, early retirement for those who will be unable to cope with demands for accountability and transparency. Since it is so hard to fire a person in the State sector even if they are terrible at their job, RTI will slowly weed out those unable or unwilling to share information in the public interest by naming and shaming them. Corruption will become harder, since stronger, more detailed record keeping means that even a coterie of corrupt can no longer comprehensively hide their tracks.
It is in and around the implementation of RTI that activists who have championed it for decades will find the greatest challenges lurk. It is entirely unclear how committed the government really is to RTI. For starters, there is no budgetary allocation for the implementation of RTI. The first order of the day will be to request from government the funding needed to start the implementation of RTI, but this too is a challenge – since no one has costed the exercise. A staggered implementation seems likely, with a few select institutions and ministries at the national level leading the way and others following suit. But even for this limited implementation as a first phase, the cost is likely to run into tens of millions of rupees at the very least. Staff need to be recruited or re-assigned, with training. Systems will need to be completely overhauled. Mechanisms to deal with requests will need to be mapped and tested. New offices will need to be created and oversight procedures fleshed out.
On the other hand, public awareness will need to be raised around the law and its potential to hold government accountable. It is unclear the degree to which mainstream media realise the potential and value of RTI. A government struggling to meet the demands of RTI will unlikely also champion vociferously about its merits, which then places the onus on civil society to animate citizenry to use the law. RTI comes to Sri Lanka at a time when we are on the cusp of almost ubiquitous connectivity – from continued upgrades of existing telecommunications infrastructure to the advent of new technologies like Google Loon which promise high speed wireless connectivity from all corners of the country. This means that the implementation of RTI in Sri Lanka needs to be digital and mobile first, enabling citizens to interact with and ask questions from government, using the provisions in the law, through their mobile phones, tablets and desktop browsers instead of resorting to paper, pen and post. The technology is there. The larger challenge will be around the mind-set of public officials.
There is already evidence how RTI requests lodged in India have helped Sri Lankans learn more about the secretive nature of the controversial coal power plant project in Sampur. Even without full disclosure by the Government of India, there is enough information as a consequence of repeated RTI requests that proves the Sampur project is a hugely problematic venture. And therein also lies a lesson – information in the public domain does not automatically engender the political will to address official wrongdoing or maladministration. Oftentimes, information secured by RTI will require more requests to be made possibly from other public institutions, cross-verification, some translation and finally, contextualisation. Ordinary citizens may demand information, but government is not bound to provide the information in a manner that is easily comprehended. This is why it is so important to strengthen civil society and independent media to use RTI to transformation information to knowledge, and raw data into context.
Urubokka’s children, present on the day RTI was passed, may not know what it was like in Sri Lanka before RTI. They may grow up with a government far more open than we could ever imagine or bring about without and before RTI legislation. The success of the law depends on many factors, but one thing is evident. It is too important to leave to somnambulist, offensive, ignorant lawmakers in Parliament. Rather than suffer, in the future, the wrath of the children who today visit Parliament, imaginative, forward-thinking, strategic and politically bold decisions around RTI must be taken, with the support of champions in government, to implement what to my mind, is historic a turning point in Sri Lanka’s architecture of governance.
First published in The Sunday Island on 3 July 2016