Pragmatic Right to Information

By Prof. Rohan Samarajiva

Can the CMC give any citizen of Sri Lanka the right to request and obtain information on, say, the loan terms of a large construction project undertaken by a Ministry of the central government?  No.  Can it create a right to obtain information from a Minstry of a provincial government?  No.   Can it recognize such a right in relation to a subject under the authority of the Colombo Municipal Council, such as the allocation of stalls in a municipal market?  Yes.

It may not be perfect, but this is how devolved power works.  It is one thing to talk abstractly about devolution of power under the 13th Amendment Plus/Minus; Quite another to grasp how power can be pragmatically exercised in conditions of devolved authority at the local-government level.

There are fears and negative perceptions about RTI.  Some may not think they are reasonable, but they are reasonable to those who hold them.  I have run a government organization; I can empathize with them.  Strident argument is just one way of addressing these concerns.  Quiet demonstration is another.

RTI is a complicated right.  It is not like simply turning on a switch.  It can have unintended consequences.  Fewer records may be kept of decisions because officials fear queries.  Personal information may be released with dire consequences for unsuspecting third parties.  Most RTI statutes contain exceptions to address these concerns.  In some cases the exceptions will be so broad, or will be so broadly interpreted, that the right is made almost meaningless.  Getting the balance right is not easy.

One could of course try it at the national level and tweak until it is right.  Alternatively, one could try it out at a lower level of government on a small scale as a pilot; learn the lessons of what works and what needs fine tuning and scale up.  There is no one right way.

There is no certainty that the CMC implementation will be scaled up.  But those who wish to win RTI at the national level can leverage the experience in Colombo.  It will, at least, do them no harm.

Milinda Moragoda’s plans for Colombo cannot be implemented without a clean, efficient administration.

His policy platform promises both a Citizens’ Charter (CC) and RTI.  CC is essentially a service-level agreement between the service giver and the citizen.  The service giver promises the service will be provided in x time if all the requirements are met.  If not, remedies are specified.  The RTI is more general; the information requestor need not be a direct party, e.g., a citizen can request information on how permission was given to fill wetland, even she has no direct interest in the land or the transaction.

Both CC and RTI require proper maintenance of files or records, a function that has sadly deteriorated in many, if not most, government offices.  But efficient service delivery cannot occur without proper maintenance of “files” in whatever form.  The pressures that will be brought to bear on individual officials by the CC and RTI to deliver services on time and to produce documentation of prior decisions, respectively, will reinforce efforts to reengineer CMC work processes and make the organization clean and efficient.

CC and RTI are essential elements of the plans to improve service delivery by the CMC.  RTI is good in and of itself.  But it will also help reform and improve municipal government.  Milinda Moragoda is committed to RTI for both reasons.

Milinda Moragoda ran one election campaign with RTI as a major plank in his platform, possibly the only one who ran ads on this subject.  That was in 2010 and the party was the Sri Lanka National Congress, a constituent of the UPFA.  He lost that election.

There is not much point in asking a person who was not in Parliament when the RTI bill was introduced as a private member’s bill about why he did not support it.  He was not in a position to do so.

Prior to that, he had the Justice and Law Reform portfolio for a few months.  During this time he attempted to enact the RTI law.  After losing the election, he continued to speak publicly on the topic, in Sinhala and Tamil, both in print and on electronic media.  If people thought he had gone quiet, it was perhaps because they do not engage with Sinhala and Tamil media.  For example, a rerun of a Didulana Diyatha programme addressing RTI was shown the week of September 13th.

He has been very clear about his absolute commitment to the RTI plank in his platform.  His policy platform is no secret to the UPFA and the SLFP.  It was presented to the President and launched with the participation and endorsement of the General Secretary of the UPFA and the Treasurer of the SLFP.

Courtesy Groundviews

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