Without information we humans, the most advanced species on Earth, would be handicapped. Information is everywhere, but whether they are credible and valid remains a question. Freedom of expression and the Right to Information (RTI) have been topics tabled for decades with no proper implementation. Both these avenues have been newer expressions of the post-war era and Sri Lanka is making steady progress as at now.
One year after the enactment of the RTI Act Sri Lanka recently reached third place in the Global RTI Index thus becoming the first South Asian country to achieve this target. Throughout the South Asian region the enactment of the RTI Act has been a herculean task and various individuals have risked their lives to make it a reality. Nikhil Dey is one such social activist of Indian origin, known for his struggles to promote the RTI Act in India and the founder of MazdoorKishan Shakti Sangthan (MKSS) in 1987, an organisation that works to ensure minimum wages for workers.
During a recent visit to Sri Lanka, Dey in a candid interview with the Daily Mirror, related his experiences in enacting the Act, the importance of RTI and the way forward.
- RTI is vital for the fight against corruption
- democratic politics needs the development of a different kind of politics
- It has been recorded that there are 70 lakhs of RTI applications annually
- The Global Index considers only the quality of law and not the quality of implementing
- In India more than 70 people have been killed as means of RTI usage
- Now a decision has been made by the Government of India to make every RTI available appear on the website
Q Why is an RTI Act important for countries such as India and Sri Lanka that are plagued with corruption?
I think RTI is vital for the fight against corruption. If you don’t have transparency you don’t have access to information. It’s only access to information that can drive a transparent structure. You can do anything in a country with so many inequalities, different regions and climactic conditions. All South Asian countries face similar types of challenges. Society too has all kinds of issues including gender and different access to power. So corruption and arbitrary exercises raise many questions in the minds of the public. If you have democracy as a system then it’s one of the most powerful ways in which you can intervene in governance, ask questions, demand answers and give your opinion. So it’s the first step to the world’s day-to-day participation. The vote allows you participation once in five years and then you are lost. If you want to keep your elected representative or bureaucracy accountable then RTI is not a sufficient condition, but a very necessary one. RTI connects to an issue and it’s a battle for removing the imbalances of power. In a democracy imbalance of power is deadly and you need distributed power. So it’s a non-violent way of change.
Q What prompted you to be an RTI activist?
I come from a privileged background; in fact from a liberal home which said that inequality is wrong, poverty is terrible and that it was around me. It just made me want to do something rather than saying it was wrong and terrible all the time. I thought everything would come out of politics and then I understood that democratic politics needs the development of a different kind of politics. That didn’t lead me directly to RTI, but instead I worked with some poor people in a little village in Rajasthan and they are the ones who fed me with the ideas. They related how they are frustrated and showed me where the demands need to be made, so that they would know the truth.
If civil society agencies and the media could write about it, definitely it will reach the public. It should be written in Sinhala and Tamil too
Q On what issues have RTI being used in India?
When we began back in 1992 or 1993 there was no talk about RTI except in certain rooms in seminars. It was a long struggle first to get local government records which took five or six years and then bringing about a state law which took another four to five years and making it an Act took another five years. All the way people used it, but saw the limitations of each law. I think Sri Lanka in many ways has a better law than India. In some places it’s weaker, but in many places it’s stronger. It started being used by ordinary people who were demanding their rights for survival which included the right to food, education, wages and their everyday things. People who have never attended school understood the value of this Act. Even the Indian courts have acknowledged it because the Indian law changed it from just a freedom of expression issue to a right to life issue and a right to equality issue. This is because you cannot ensure equal treatment until you know what’s happening. Today it is used in a million things; the Prime Minister’s office, the President’s office, the smallest pollution control board office and even departments in ministries. It has been recorded that there are 70 lakhs of RTI applications annually. If you can imagine each RTI application producing such a reaction, 70 lakhs of applications are shaking up the system.
Q It’s been a year since Sri Lanka enacted the RTI law and we have already reached third place in the Global RTI Index. Your comments?
The Global Index considers only the quality of law and not the quality of implementing. That is something that needs to be monitored. Even in India, it was the quality of law that was being evaluated. In India there are many shortcomings in implementation and there are sheer numbers of the tenacity of people. In India more than 70 people have been killed as means of RTI usage. This shows how much it has shaken up the system, but it also shows how sharp the reaction is.
I think Sri Lanka is in its early stages and what I feel is that it’s important to make people aware of its usage. There are people out there with potential RTI applications because they are frustrated, have various issues and have been experiencing various vulnerable problems. In India RTI is now like a verb and it means a lot of things because it’s about questioning, filing an RTI, getting the records and so on. I think that popularization will take some time and for this the media has to play a significant role. There will be a story in one province or another which needs to come out, so that the others could be inspired by it. In India when we started we were supported by several doyennes of the media industry. They travelled with us and some of them even thanked the ordinary people for fighting a battle the media should have fought.
But even when the law was fast enough certain journalists claimed that they have their sources. Questions were raised as to who would wait for 30 days to get information and so on. But today these sources would ask journalists to file an RTI. In Sri Lanka a person could receive information within 14 days. But this is the outer limit. There have been instances where we have received information within half an hour. Certainly if there’s an issue that needs to be written immediately, we cannot wait for an RTI.
Q What benefits could the society and authorities reap in bringing about the proactive disclosure of information?
For the society as a whole it has a huge benefit because if the information is available it has its own effect on preventing corruption. Websites and everything are now turning into digital governance so you can easily make it available to everyone at the click of a button. Data should be open, but it also should be usable. Digital governance therefore allows you to produce those reports and allow anyone to have access to them. That will make governance more efficient, certainly allow people fight and prevent corruption and also make changes in policy because more people could make informed choices.
Q How could authorities be trained for this?
What we have seen is that those training sessions end up being how you can deny information. We don’t have that culture of transparency. We have a culture which asks why they should answer a question, who are you to ask me etc. Therefore we need to shift from a culture of secrecy to a culture of transparency. In that RTI and proactive disclosure would help.
I think Sri Lanka is in its early stages. I feel that it’s important to make people aware of its usage. There are people out there with potential RTI applications
Q How difficult was it to implement the law in India and what lessons could Sri Lanka learn from it?
Still it’s difficult. It involves continual resistance because the Government would want to amend it and there are others who would give you half answers, delayed answers, scare, threaten and intimidate you. When appeals start going to the commissions they pile up there and people start getting fed up and it loses credibility. We got it after a long struggle and we need to protect it. It’s not a sufficient condition to change everything, but it is
Q As you mentioned earlier, journalists and people who use RTI have risked their lives to bring about a change. How should Governments respond to this situation?
The weakest link we have seen is the Government. The Government acts as a progressive, transparent leader that would say nobody should go to the commission and I would file an action against any officer who denies or delays information. That would be a good proactive, transparent administrator. But unfortunately the Government says it will pass a law, it’s a mistake and let’s change it, find ways around it and fight at the commission. Therefore it’s a continual battle and if you get proactive disclosure systems in then nobody can prevent it as it is automatic. It’s now like a grievance-regress mechanism, but you need a follow-up and accountability mechanism. Governments have to go out, provide the information, ask people for their opinions and take action.
Q The concept of RTI is quite new to Sri Lanka. How could this be familiarised among rural communities?
If civil society agencies and the media could write about it, definitely it will reach the public. It should be written in Sinhala and Tamil too. People should know that there is a large civil society group backing them. There were attacks when the Indian RTI law was being passed. It was a powerful law and they tried to amend it within the first year, it was prevented. They tried to amend the rules etc., but none of that has been successful so far. This is because there’s a large group of people protecting it because it’s a people’s law.
Even the Indian courts have acknowledged it because the Indian law changed it from just a freedom of expression issue to a right to life issue and a right to equality issue
Q Are there instances when RTI could be misused as well?
Of course. Any law can be misused particularly if it’s powerful. The main allegation against RTI is that people could use it to blackmail people. If I know someone is vulnerable and is doing something wrong, I can threaten them with an RTI or I can file an RTI and publicise it. That has happened and because the person concerned has done something wrong, they don’t want to complain.
The best answer to that is proactive disclosure because if information comes out automatically then how can blackmailing be done? Now a decision has been made by the Government of India to make every RTI available appear on the website including the answers. This way we could keep track of who is filing it and using the information.
RTI is an open process and in fact there are instances when people in jails have used RTI and have freed themselves. Many have used it to seek justice; especially those who have had wrong trials against them. You cannot argue against transparency because where there is misuse you should act against it. I feel proud that Sri Lanka has displaced India in this subject and a better competitor and democratic governance is needed.