Parents of affected school children were on Monday successful before the Right to Information (RTI) Commission in obtaining the name lists and numbers of school children admitted to Grade One of Visakha Vidyalaya in 2014. An information request had been filed by parents, including several senior doctors, to the Commission asking for the information.
The appeal was heard before RTI Commission Chairman Mahinda Gammanpila and Commissioners Kishali Pinto-Jayawardena, S.G. Punchihewa and Selvy Thiruchandran.
Speaking to the Daily Mirror, the parents said the information released on Monday also contained instructions and letters issued by the Ministry of Education to Visakha Vidyalaya directing certain children to be admitted at the time. The Ministry had refused to release the requested information when the parents had appealed. The parents then went to the RTI Commission. The Commission order was issued after the Visakha Vidyalaya Principal appeared before the Commission and provided the information.
The parents also said that during consideration of the request, the Commission had pointed out the Designated Officer (DO), the Education Ministry Secretary Sunil Hettiarachchi, had acted completely contrary to the RTI Act and Regulations.
He had rejected the appeal sent to him by the parents but his rejection had not specified the grounds on which information may be refused though the Act requires him to do that. He had unreasonably delayed to respond to the parents’ appeal though he was required to respond within three weeks. They alleged that the Ministry Secretary had responded-if at all to refuse the information-only when they had appealed to the Commission.
The DO had also not presented himself or sent the relevant responsible officer of his Ministry for the appeal hearing. The affected parents complained that in these situations and regardless of whether the information is released or not from another public authority, the RTI Act gave the Commission the power to initiate a prosecution in the relevant court, where upon conviction, a penalty of a fine and/or imprisonment for a term not exceeding two years may be imposed under law.
President Maithripala Sirisena, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and other National Unity Government leaders often boast that the RTI Act is one of the most progressive Acts implemented since January 2015. Therefore we urge the Government to take action against the Education Ministry Secretary for blatantly violating this important Act and ensure that other DOs comply fully with the provisions of the RTI Act.
In addition this case might also help to tackle one of Sri Lanka’s most serious social problems-controversies over the so-called large scale “donations” demanded by schools for admission of children. Social justice and civic action groups say they see this “donation” as a glorified bribe. This week’s case needs to inspire other parents also to get written information from the school as to how and for what purpose these donations are used. There needs to be openness, transparency and accountability.
Another morally damaging aspect of this is that when the children grow up and learn that their parents gave a glorified bribe to get them admitted to school they may be tempted to think that if this is what is happening in schools it may not be wrong for them to indulge in this vice, when they go into their professional careers.
Therefore on an overall basis with the National Government having an allocation of more than Rs. 100 billion for education next year, Sri Lanka needs to reconsider the payments of this so-called donations for admission of children and workout some other way of avoiding this form of corruption, not only in the school but of the children’s character.
One way might be to put more resources and commitments into the successful implementation of the policy of making the nearest school the best school “Langama Pasala Hondama Pasala”.
This may take a few years but if the education, school authorities and parents work proactively to turn the promise into a reality, then overall we may also see a major reduction in corruption and fraud that have ravaged society and led to the plunder of billions of rupees from public funds.