Amidst the Government’s Independence Day events and excitement over next week’s elections to341 local councils, quiet and gradual steps in bringing about a better standard of governance have gone almost unnoticed during the previous months. Tomorrow Sri Lanka marks one year of the operationalization of the Right to Information Act. There is much to celebrate about RTI.
Globally acclaimed as the third best RTI law and the first in the region, the Act’s impact on the public service and other sectors of society has been remarkable, given decades of secrecy and the ruthless party politicization of once prestigious institutions. The RTI Commission has also been upholding its role as an independent entity with credit, despite many financial obstacles that it has had to contend with.
Some weeks ago, this newspaper carried an expose on the crippling of Sri Lankan Airlines as a result of persistent financial and internal mismanagement during the past many years. The Pilots’ Guild as a responsible professional industry body, had filed an RTI application to the RTI Commission asking for information on ‘exhorbitant’ salaries and other perks being claimed by the top management of the airlines and also in relation to other allegations of waste and mismanagement. As our story highlighted, the Commission has indicated to the national carrier to reveal the information relating to salaries of executive grade officers, stating that this is information that should be anyway voluntarily disclosed under the Act, as public funds are in issue.
President Maithripala Sirisena has announced that he will appoint a Commission to investigate allegations against SriLankan and Mihin Airline. We hope that this will not be just an election-speak.
A few days ago, a Sunday newspaper also carried details of a petition filed in the Court of Appeal by challenging the Health Ministry on the non-awarding of a tender labelled ‘very urgent’ to procure 600 vials of the life-saving cancer drug Nimotozumab. This was despite bids closing on January 13, 2017, more than one year ago. The petition had been filed by the sole registered supplier, who holds the export licence for the injections in Sri Lanka.
The Director of the Medical Supplies Division (MSD), the Director-General of Health Services, the Health Minister and the Secretary to the Ministry had been cited as the respondents in the petition. The petitioner had applied for information under the Right to Information (RTI) Act and obtained certified copies of the letter the Director of Medical Supplies, on the instructions of the Health Ministry Secretary, had written to public hospitals, calling for their individual requirements of the drug, “prior to proceeding to tenders to purchase and supply the item”. Official responses submitted by the respective heads of the medical institutions on this issue had also been obtained in this regard.
It was pointed out that the respondents had ‘consciously and willfully’ suppressed information from Court and the public, thereby sacrificing the lives of poor cancer patients to try and get an advantage in this case. The information had only been obtained under the RTI Act, it was said.
Without a doubt, these are important steps taken under the RTI Act which has given the Sri Lankan people a new weapon to use to their benefit and also enforced duties on State entities. On Sunday, as we mark the Independence of this country from colonial rule, it is important to remember that fact and to celebrate our gains regardless of the setbacks we may have to face.