Fuelling a crisis

Long queues of vehicles snaking around petrol stations was a familiar site last week. Two other developments, with attention on the petrol crisis, went relatively unnoticed. One, an announcement by the Prime Minister that there will be an online opinion poll on the Interim Report of the Steering Committee of the Constitutional Assembly. News reports quoting sources from the Prime Minister’s office noted that “opinion of the public would be sought through web comments and postings on Facebook pages”. The other development was the inaccessibility of the Lanka E News website on Wednesday. All major Internet Service Providers (ISPs) seem to have blocked the website, which by Thursday was only accessible by using a proxy.

The petrol crisis seems to be the result of a perfect storm of mishaps and coincidence. A ship from Lanka IOC was turned away due to impurities in the oil. A ship bringing supplies for Ceylon Petroleum Corporation – CEYPETCO – was delayed. The Sapugaskanda refinery developed technical issues. Some computer systems failed. Just-in-time delivery demands that reserves are minimised in order for the tanks to have enough storage for incoming oil shipments, failing which oil tankers would incur heavy demurrage when docked at or moored around Colombo Port. When the recent shipments were either rejected or delayed, relevant government officials had worked out supply chain logistics in order to use the reserve supplies in Sri Lanka to meet projected demand, based on existing data for an average week. However, an SMS and subsequent social media outing of the shortage of supplies led, very quickly, to high demand, putting paid to all the calculations by officials around the supply of fuel until the next shipments arrived and were cleared. Meeting sustained peak demand would have depleted all remaining supplies of oil. Officials were forced to ration the supply of petrol, leading to shortages around the country, queues extending for over one-kilometre, angry, tired drivers, a confused, panicking public and the spread of rumour, further fuelling the crisis.

The insight into the petrol crisis noted above was gleaned from the ‘Saaraprabhaa Gira’ programme broadcast on SLBC’s Commercial Service’s on the morning of the 8th. The programme featured Secretary at CEYPETCO, Upali Marasinghe, who in response to probing questions channelling public fears and anger, responded in a lucid, calm and informative manner. Though commendable for going on air, it was the first clear messaging from government around the petrol shortage and the reasons for it nearly a week into the crisis. Two days prior, Arjuna Ranatunga, the Minister of Petroleum Resources Development, issued a convoluted Press Release in horrible, broken English that explained nothing and blamed everyone else other than CEYPETCO. Neither the President nor the PM saw it fit to directly address the public, or to go meet them as they queued – sometimes for over ten hours – just to get some fuel. There was no SMS from government, no social media outreach, no mainstream media interview or statement. The PM noted on the 7th in Parliament that he and the President had already discussed getting another shipment of Petrol from India with Indian High Commissioner. This was confirmed the next day. However, as flagged by well-known journalist Amantha Perera on Twitter, reaching out in desperation to the Indian PM for help in dealing with the crisis ran counter to Ranatunga’s Press Release, which placed the blame squarely on Lanka IOC. In the meanwhile, Minister of Megapolis and Western Development Champika Ranawaka kept telling the media there was a mafia in Sri Lanka’s power and energy sector which needed to be investigated. This added to public anger and concern around the perceived inability of a government in power to deal with something as basic as adequate fuel supplies.

The chaos surrounding crisis and public communications over just the past week is instructive when attempting to determine how the government will go about an online poll on the Interim Report of the Constitutional Assembly. The analogy that springs to mind is to ask someone who clearly cannot cook, and is a disaster in the kitchen, to make a gourmet meal. The PM first talked about social media in the constitutional reform process as far back as January 2016. Absolutely nothing happened since, until last week’s pronouncement that something – we do not know what or how – will be done to energise the public to give online feedback around a process and report they know little to nothing about. Survey after survey clearly shows the government has done nothing to educate the public on constitutional reform. An ill-informed public will unsurprisingly provide negative, anxious feedback in the main, ironically feeding into the JO’s masterplan of disruption and fear mongering. In other words, this has all the signs of a disastrous attempt at technocratic governance, a tragic hallmark of the UNP, instead of using technology to engage, educate, empathise and energise.

And this brings us to the blocking of the Lanka E News website, a day before the budget was presented in Parliament. The website is well-known as nothing more than a platform for the production and exchange of gossip. That is precisely why it is frequented by so many, and not for the website’s journalistic prowess, integrity or the preponderance of accurate, verified stories. And yet, possibly on account of a series of articles targeting President Sirisena, the government has now blocked access to the site across all major ISPs in the country. There is no court order or judicial process that governed this action. Nearly three years into the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe yahapalanaya government, this action showcases a lot that’s remained unchanged, and indeed, profits those in power. ISPs are fearful of government. The government, as only it sees fit, blocks access to content. The courts are side-stepped and rendered optional at best. There is no oversight of or insight into executive fiat. It embarrasses no one more than the government itself. It gives credence to and fuels even greater interest in what Lanka E News has published. This one censorious action will sadly place Sri Lanka, once again, on the radar of international media and web monitoring frameworks, risking rankings that have steadily improved since January 2015. It is a short-sighted, ill-informed, self-defeating action that reaffirms opposition to any sort of social media governance the government is partial to.

And so here we are. A fuel crisis impacting millions that the government’s arrogance didn’t find necessary to proactively address in a coherent, coordinated, empathetic manner. The vague promise of online engagement over the new constitution that in the manner it is presented, and given the demonstrable (in)competence of government, is bound to fail and worse, strengthen the JO’s machinations to derail everything. A gossip website suddenly blocked without any due process, that highlights, amongst other things, how insecure and thin-skinned the incumbent President is.

All this isn’t the best news heading into a year that for better or worse, will define Sri Lanka’s socio-political contours for decades to come.

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First published in The Sunday Island, 12 November 2017.

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Reimagining a city

‘City Game’ is a participatory exercise in urban planning developed by the Bangalore based think-tank ‘Fields of View’. Using whatever material available to represent structures, locations and spaces, participants are encouraged to build a city that they would like to live in and interact with. The exercise is engaging on many levels. A traditional workshop model would usually entail detailed presentations followed by little time for meaningful discussion, especially around a topic as multi-layered as urban development. The ‘City Game’ provided a framework for each participant to contribute what they thought was a meaningful construct towards an ideal city, and for others to contest or complement what was placed through other structures they felt necessary, or by engaging others in a discussion around the meaning, implications, placement or the politics of choices made.

The ideal city our group came up with had a port and beach, suburbs, a central business district, airport, waste management plant, schools, bars, public wifi, solar and hydro-power generation, parks, hospitals, clinics, a university and other features. Part of the city was on mountainous terrain, serviced by a cable car. Most of the city was imagined to be at a lower altitude, tapering down towards the seaside. The initial placement of a Town Hall organically grew into a single city centre, with a constellation of neighbourhoods and other administrative, commercial, residential, recreational and educational spaces around it. The central business district around halfway into the simulation got a hotel and a monorail service that linked it to the city centre and suburbs. The beach area was negotiated away from the port, by at least two participants who had a vested interest in its placement near a suburb they had contributed to the creation of. Others made places of religious worship into multi-faith centres, and cemeteries into crematoriums. The inclusion of Police was thought of very late into the simulation, with participants focussing more on supermarkets, accessibility of government services, public transport and parks. Interestingly, to my mind, the simulation ended before participants got around to creating city parking, a train station or bus depot.

The game, through what was created as well as what was avoided, reflected what a city often is and should be, at least, for the participants who took part in the exercise. Fields of View, which has done over one hundred similar simulations around the world, had a number of interesting insights to share with the group. In Europe, for example, consultation and planning amongst the group preceded any kind of actual construction or placement of objects. In South Asia, we were told that conversations were usually around what was placed first, and only then around its location, nature, purpose or selection. A rare exception we were told was a group from the Sri Lankan Administrative Service (SLAS), who had started with substantive discussions around the kind of city they had wanted to create before anything was placed on the floor. Another notable feature of the SLAS group’s city had been a lot of trees and green spaces.

Aside from the city we ended up with, which many of us said would be very close to one we would love to live in, the conversation at the end of the construction phase of the simulation was illuminating. Everyone brought into the imagined space their experiences, bias, frames of perception, notions of justice and visions of the good life. The game is obviously more interesting the more diverse the group of participants are, but even among the like-minded, interesting tensions emerged around choices. A participant who wanted a place of religious worship found that others in the group wanted a more secular city, changing the building into, ultimately, a multi-faith centre. Many felt the construction of a hydro-power station was unnecessary given the city’s investment in solar – with one participant flagging Elon Musk’s path-breaking very high-capacity battery technology in South Australia as a marker of what cities in the future, and future cities, would invest in. What we left with was a greater appreciation around just how much urban spaces and their development should be a conversation more than a product, place or process dumped on inhabitants with little to no consultation. A city is and can be many things. Depending on one’s gender, politics, experience, age and so many other identity markers, a city is an organism negotiated through a spectrum ranging from ease to discomfort. The simulation was a useful tool in bringing these assumptions centre and forward in discussions around how what was created could actually serve the inhabitants who would go on to live in a particular neighbourhood, area or suburb. Conversely, as Fields of View also reminded us, so much of what we want to see in our ideal city is an extension of what we enjoy in our own neighbourhood or community. The projection of the familiar is the default mode of imagining what an ideal space for everyone must look like, downplaying what others may think or feel. Needless to say, this leads to conflict, the management and productive negotiation of which is absolutely central to urban development.

My own contributions focussed on bike lanes, the Internet of Things (IoT) and its application in urban development as well as clean energy based urban transportation networks. A participant who wanted the city’s inhabitants to easily access administrative services wanted to place government offices around the city, including in low-income areas. My submission was that even today, the smartphone – cutting across socio-economic groups and other identity markers – was central to keeping in touch, as well as alerting and informing others. Any city in Sri Lanka today, leave aside the future or the ideal, needs to invest more in ways that administrative services are rendered accessible over smartphone and tablets, including through voice-driven services like 1919 for those who were relatively illiterate. My point was that the development of these always-on, on-demand, multi-lingual and multi-media services would militate against the need for brick and mortar administrative structures dotted across a city. Public wifi, following cities like New York, Bangkok and more recently, London, would allow anyone, anywhere to access, at the very least, all official and administrative services and beyond that, private news, information, communication and entertainment options. One benefit of this could be the diffusion of commercial, office space, allowing a culture of co-working and home-based telecommuting to take the place of a physical commute to work every day, contributing in turn to a less congestion on roads and public transport systems. Mobile charging points dotted across a city could enable shared electric vehicles to take the place of individual vehicles when coming into and driving within the city. Dedicated bike routes, coupled with bike share and pay-per-use hire programmes, could encourage those with a short commute to work to avoid personal and public transportation and instead, just cycle into and around the city.

All this aside, a quick scan of social and mainstream media in just the past year surfaces a wealth of conversations around how, for example, Colombo’s urban development can take place, instead of what actually is taking root, broadly supported on aesthetic grounds, largely unquestioned, often deeply violent and generally accepted as inevitable in the way it is presented. Just like the ideas generated at the simulation today, there are also ideas in the public domain around how things can and should be done better. The disconnect seems to, as it is in other domains, be more with the disinterest of local and national authorities to listen to and consult citizens, than the paucity of ideas, innovation or interest. City Game offers no concrete solution to this. However, the possible democratisation of the game – played with as many communities and in as many spaces as possible, with a robust capture of the output and discussions, would for the conscientious urban planner or policymaker offer insights that can make our urban spaces work and feel better, for everyone.

One risks disappointment to hope that this will be the case, instead of what today is a process that alienates, evicts and disempowers, all in the name of visual beauty, cleanliness, efficiency and social progress.

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First published in The Sunday Island, 16 July 2017.

The new constitution that may never be

Gramsci spoke of the pessimism of intellect and the optimism of will. How does this relate to Sri Lanka today? The deafening silence around the process of constitution making, justified by key architects as inevitable in order for progress around tenacious issues to be made, indicates to all but the most delusional the reform process has little to no traction in the public imagination. This is a problem. Basic intelligence suggests a process as vexed as writing a new constitution, without public traction or debate, dumped by government elites for approval just before a referendum risks confusion at best and opposition or rejection at worst. And yet, Sri Lanka really needs a new constitution. If the constitution expresses the will of the people, it needs to be one that guides us away from the structures of power and identity that led to what we are still hostage to – a violent, racist State, largely unable as a first step to even recognise the degree to which it excludes and discriminates. The optimism of will, when embodied in a constitution, is what can guarantee to the extent possible a better future for all citizens, independent of what government, Executive or Prime Minister are, say and do.

Disturbingly though, things are not going well. And that is an understatement.

An islandwide poll conducted by Social Indicator, the polling arm of the Centre for Policy Alternatives (to which I am attached as a Senior Researcher) on perceptions around and attitudes towards the new constitution makes for very depressing reading. The official topline report will be released to the public this week. Some of the key findings bear mention.

Contrary to what the President, Prime Minister and the whole of government may believe, a quarter of Sri Lankans have no clue that a constitutional reform process is taking place at present. 34.1% know a reform process is taking place, but have no idea about the details or where the process is currently at. The twenty-member Public Representations Committee (PRC), appointed by the PM, held public sittings in all districts of the island earlier this year. Just the written representations to the PRC numbered in the thousands. And yet, echoing concerns made at the time around publicity and awareness raising, the Social Indicator poll brings out that over 70% of Sri Lankans hadn’t heard of the PRC or its activities. It gets worse. A staggering 76.8% hadn’t heard of the Constitutional Assembly, which held its first sitting on the 5th of April 2016 in the Parliament Chamber. Even amongst those who had heard of it, there was no awareness around what it was doing. Unsurprisingly, nearly 60% of Sri Lankans said that the Government hadn’t been successful in communicating the constitutional reform process – such as its importance or progress – to citizens.

Fundamentally, this means that the majority of Sri Lankans today don’t know about the constitution making process, haven’t heard about the PRC much less its final report and are clueless, even if they have a vague idea of what’s going on in government regarding the reform process, around key outcomes and output. There is simply no other way to interpret the data. It is a slow onset catastrophe. The public or political communications aspect is worth flagging. Television remains the single most important vector for news and information, with private channels consumed more than state owned media. This isn’t surprising. What however the data also confirms is, I would argue, an irreversible, growing trend around the importance of Facebook in particular and Internet based sources in general as vectors of news and information. 15.7% from the Southern Province and 11.1% from the Eastern Province said that Facebook is one of their main news sources while 29.5% from the Northern Province and 15.8% from Sabaragamuwa said that emails from friends or family is a main news source for them. Pegged to an earlier social poll conducted in the Western Province by Social Indicator late-2015, what this suggests is that there is increasing opportunity to engage directly a demographic between 18 – 34 through social, web and mobile media and, importantly, that investments in engaging this demographic can in fact also influence an older age group, because of the nature of sharing and forwarding content. Given this data, the tragedy is in the fact that the government is doing nothing at all around an opportunity to proactively define the contours of the new constitution amongst those whose votes placed the President and this government in power.

Flowing from last week’s column, reservoirs of goodwill still run wide and deep for this government. The majority of Sri Lankans believe it is good that the two main political parties have come together in a National Unity Government and also think the two parties should remain together. The challenge is leveraging this enduring appeal to address what can only be politely put as a deeply conservative socio-political outlook by Sinhalese, and the South. Take for instance Article 2 of the present constitution which marks the country as a unitary state. 77.7% of Sinhalese want to retain the phrase ‘unitary state’. Only 14.3% of Tamils, 18.1% of Up-Country Tamils and 28.8% of Muslims concur. There are clear, perhaps growing ethnic divides which are very likely to be the contours of constitutional contestation in the near future. On the question of giving Buddhism a special place in the Constitution, 77% of Sinhalese strongly agree. 73.3% of Tamils strongly disagree. Almost 90% of Tamils and Muslims strongly agree that the new constitution should give all religions equal status. Yet, less than 64% of Sinhalese concur.

There are other interesting insights. 49.3% of Sri Lankan said that for them, a unitary state means one united, indivisible country. The realisation of precisely this is independent of labels given to the architecture of power and its precise configuration between or within centre and periphery. But labels matter, to some more than others. The Sinhalese (55.7%) want labels – they want the new constitution to be identified with markers like ‘unitary state’. Just 15.2% of Tamils, 11.9% of Up-Country Tamils and 22.2% of Muslims concur. Minorities in Sri Lanka want meaningful, systemic reform no matter what the label is. The majority community can’t see beyond what specific arrangements are called. This is a playground for spoilers in the South.

The final section of the report is anchored to the Provincial Council system and its future. One figure stands out, given the current tensions in the North and within the NPC. 69.2% of Tamils believe powers of the Provincial Councils should be increased. Just 37.8% of Sinhalese concur. Support is highest in the Northern (77.8%) Province. In comparison, only 29.5% in the Southern Province agree.

Should we be pessimistic about the potential for change or optimistic around what may happen, despite government? Damningly, there is clearly no real political leadership to what is ostensibly a priority for government. Will publication of this data inspire, even at the 11th hour, action, vision and direction? Gramsci wrote what he did from prison. We are in a prison too, called the ’77 constitution.

Time for a historic jail-break.

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First published in The Sunday Island, 9 October 2016.

Shape South Asia 2016 & ‘Corridors of Power’

I was invited by the WEF GlobalShapers Colombo Hub (see Facebook page here) to showcase the ‘Corridors of Power‘ exhibition again and also to speak on it.

The exhibition, first held in 2015 at the JDA Perera Gallery, was unlike any other project combining design, architecture and constitutional theory. It occupied a very large floor space, which wasn’t available at the GlobalShaper’s venue this year. I had to then compress the entire floor plan and as much as I could of the background into two high-definition, which ran on a loop on very large LCD screens. The four models representing the ’72 and ’78 constitution as well as the 13th and 18th Amendments, were displayed at the venue.

The first video went into the background of the exhibition.

The second was anchored to the 3D renderings of each of the models.

My note on the concept, research and evolution of the project can be read below.

Asanga Welikala’s background research into and overview of the project can be read below.

Channa Daswatte’s take on the project can be read below.

Asia Foundation LankaCorps Fellows Presentation

The Asia Foundation’s LankaCorps Fellowship programme is one I’ve been associated with and supported from its inception. It’s described on the TAF website site,

…a unique opportunity for young leaders of Sri Lankan heritage to professionally engage in social, cultural, and economic development activities in Sri Lanka. The program aims to foster the involvement and understanding of young members of the expatriate Sri Lankan community who have limited in-depth experience with the country of their heritage. Each year, The Asia Foundation selects an outstanding group of LankaCorps Fellows to live and work for six months in Sri Lanka, granting them the unique chance to “explore their roots while giving back.

Every year and for each cohort, I am invited by TAF to give an overview of Sri Lanka’s political, social and media landscape as well as to cover in some detail the work of Groundviews in particular, and civic media in general.

In this year’s presentation done earlier this month, I looked at the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government a year on, with the euphoria and expectations from 2015 markedly changed. I looked at the mega-development projects, a quick scorecard of governance, undergraduate tensions from around the country with racial overtones, the passage of the Right to Information Act, the passage of the Office for Missing Persons Act, more generally the issue of transitional justice and the work of the Consultation Task Force (plus the plethora of other entities involved in reconciliation), the politics and optics of memorialization and the tryst with a new constitution, which most in Sri Lanka are completely in the dark about. I also talked about the dire macro-economic situation Sri Lanka finds itself in.

I then talked about the work I’ve spearheaded with Groundviews, and the media terrain in Sri Lanka post-8th January 2015 in particular.

A deeper state of mind

So he was glad the war was finished. But as for the notion of Eelam itself, “that will never be gone”, he said, looking suddenly intense, old and bitter. “But we can’t speak of it; we have not the power. Those that have the power can say. What can we say? We can’t say. But it will never be gone.”

Mr. Arayappan, quoted by Mark Whitaker in his essay featured in Sri Lanka: The Struggle for Peace in the Aftermath of War, edited by Amarnath Amarasingam and Daniel Bass

The convenience, or perhaps trappings of power, position and privilege often result in sanguine predictions for Sri Lanka’s post-war future. Last week, Cabinet approved the purchase of new fighter jets, apparently to replace the country’s ageing existing fleet. Following the approval given to the import of luxury SUVs for MPs, this is at a time when news reports suggest 95.4% of all government revenue is going towards debt repayment. And though incredible in the fullest sense of the word, fighter planes, creature comforts and cruise control clearly trump education, health and public utilities for our policymakers. There is clearly a rot at our core the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe democratic cred seeks to gloss over. It is a rot out of sight and out of mind for many, and conveniently so, in light of attention anchored to glistening computer renderings of urban spaces, the adulation of government by the international community and high-level engagements with bi-laterals and multi-laterals.

Arguably, a lot that is positive is taking place. The debate around the setting up of a permanent office to look into missing persons and enforced disappearances. The OMP bill, debated last week in Parliament, covers individuals who are missing (1) as a consequence of the conflict in the North and East, including soldiers who are missing in action; (2) in connection with political unrest or civil disturbances; and (3) from an enforced disappearance as defined by international law. This alone would never have been even remotely contemplated by the former regime. Earlier this year, a twenty member Public Representations Committee (PRC) on Constitutional Reforms, appointed by the PM held sittings across the country and came out with a substantive report. There is an Office for National Unity and Reconciliation. There is a Secretariat for Coordinating Reconciliation Mechanisms. There is currently a Consultation Task Force seeking public opinion across the country. These are all unprecedented moves. Though not always clear or coherent, there is open debate around the nature and constitution of investigative mechanisms around transitional justice, with the PM, President and other members of Parliament expressing views candidly, playing to respective constituencies. The Right to Information Act is now reality. Measures to give back land in the North are going on apace, as well as the demilitarisation of administrative structures through the appointment of civilians. We have a President who commands the respect and indeed, patience of the Tamil National Alliance. We have a PM who often now recognises in public what civil society under the Rajapaksa regime were called terrorists for advocating. Individually and collectively, the seemingly chaotic nature of pronouncements and policies aside, all this is generally positive and very welcome.

Revealingly though, there are however things we have not moved away from. The genuflection by every single political leader in front of a deeply conservative, risk-averse sangha primarily interested in maintaining the status quo. The near total lack of any introspection by the sangha of its own, and in particular the hate speech generation of the Bodu Bala Sena and its saffron-robed leaders. The revered status of ‘war heroes’, to the extent that any critical questioning on command responsibility around allegations of war crimes, or indeed, any wrongdoing, is still met with the greatest hostility. The conflation of separatism with the devolution of power from centre to periphery, and the enduring violent resistance of any kind of asymmetrical configuration for the North and East. The symbolic role of Buddhism in particular, and religion in general, in matters of the State. Proponents of reform calls for sequencing and patience – that just the ten years of democracy’s evisceration under the Rajapaksa regime will take time and effort to address, leave aside the legacy of decades of majoritarian policymaking post-independence. There is merit to this argument, and those of us not in government have the luxury of criticising inaction, without adequately appreciating the monumental difficulties of negotiating compromise amidst competing political interests.

And yet, this is where Mr. Arayappan’s sentiments, quoted by Mark Whitaker, comes into play. It speaks of a state of mind, real, not imagined. And mirroring the deep or dark state in the South – almost entirely invisible to average citizens yet omni-present and violently opposed to any radical restructuring of the state or the questioning of its agents – this state of mind if unaddressed will undermine every single thing the government says or does in the months and years to come. The violent deep state in the South is the result of incubation by successive governments for achieve partisan, parochial ends. The post-war imagination of Tamils is the result of alienation, wistfulness and desolation – the burden of grief in a landscape no longer reflecting the loss and trauma they carry within, the strain of a public persona that needs to engage with positive developments and a silent, inner voice that still yearns for recognition, respect and dignity. It is a condition of yearning too, for what the ‘boys’ stood for, even by those who lost the most to them. If the State is unable to capture the vacuum left behind by the defeat of the LTTE in mental spaces, and sees its victory and peace in primarily material or geo-spatial terms, we risk believing in the same fiction that disastrously drove the Rajapaksas in their pursuit of development-led reconciliation. Capturing hearts and minds is difficult, especially when successive governments and even Tamil political leaders have promised so much and yet delivered and done so little. And yet, it is essential.

A dark state embedded deep in the South, no longer politically expedient, can be controlled and curtailed by executive directives, judicial oversight, security sector reform and the sunlight of public scrutiny. Addressing a state of mind that remains only cosmetically attached to post-war governance poses a much harder challenge. You can’t force anyone to believe something, and the more you try, the less inclined they will be. OMP, TJ, SCRM, CTF, ONUR, RTI remain empty acronyms to those who continue to feel outside the fabric of democracy. A political leadership insensitive to this – how people who have been most affected by war feel – risks believing a self-spun fiction entirely removed from ground realities.

Rude awakenings will invariably follow.

Right to Information: All hype with no bite?

Right to Information (RTI) legislation was unanimously passed in Sri Lanka’s Parliament last week without a vote. It sounds easy and inevitable when framed thus, but that one sentence masks decades of activism and advocacy to pass RTI to no avail, and strong pushback from government predominantly based around national security issues. It was unlikely that during war, Sri Lanka would have passed this legislation. Yet even today, seven years after the war ended, the default mode of operation for government is to hoard, retain, hide and obscure information. 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 by the public. 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.

Beyond all this is how RTI can strengthen and support civic media as well as investigative reporting. In a regular column to the newspapers, I wrote that 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. I argued 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. It is here that I foresee the greatest challenges around RTI’s implementation, which I frame as a crisis of the imagination.

Used to being in the opposition, and stuck in survival mode, civil society now needs to use RTI to frame requests from government in support of their work. This means understanding the law, and using it, instead of fighting against unjust laws, which has largely defined the work of rights-based civil society advocacy and activism in Sri Lanka. The emergence of ‘solutions based journalism’ is a school of practice and thought that holds great promise for the practice of journalism under RTI, which is anchored to generating ideas to solve key issues, rather than just flag what’s going terribly wrong. The generation of new ideas and innovation, it stands to reason, can only gain from information around what decisions have been taken in the past and why, which is where RTI comes into play. Questions that interrogate structures, decisions, mechanisms, institutional history, purchases, the hiring and firing of individuals, the non-disclosure of interests and the under-utilisation of assets, the awarding of tenders to the selection of service providers, measuring key performance indicators around promises made and asking information that impacts the families of the disappeared – this is in the future all possible in Sri Lanka because of provisions in our RTI legislation.

At least, it is in theory. 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. This is where journalists, including citizen journalists, step in. While RTI’s importance extend far beyond media and journalism, journalists and acts of journalism by citizens can showcase the power and potential of RTI to prise open official mechanisms. Accountability is not a given today, and will never be. Just like the decades of activism and advocacy, against the most determined adversity that was required before RTI was passed in Sri Lanka, the litmus test of legislation will be in its fullest implementation. Else, all this hype and hoopla would have been for nothing.

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First published in SAMSN Digital Hub