Venkatesh Nayak is a leading Right to Information activist in India. He currently coordinates the Access to Information Programme of the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, providing training, guidance, and research support to Right to Information initiatives across South Asia, Africa and the Caribbean. He is an advisor to Transparency International Sri Lanka, a civil society organization that steered the movement for RTI legislation in Sri Lanka since 2002. Internews met him during a brief visit to Sri Lanka to understand what Sri Lanka can expect from our own RTI Act.
What kind of cultural change has RTI brought about in India? For example, in the relationship between citizens and government.
Until the RTI Act was brought in, the understanding about how government business should be conducted is that information will be shared with people on a need-to-know basis. The RTI Act changes that on its head by saying that people have the right to seek information of any kind that they would want to get access to, with the exception of certain circumstances when the disclosure may not be in the public interest.
[In India] the official figures indicate that since 2005 up to October 2016, about 1.84 crore RTI applications were filed across the country. This number amounts to 1% of the population using RTI, if you were to say that every one of those 1.84 crore RTI applications were filed by a separate citizen. So the numbers may look big but the proportions are not that large. However, in a country where there are large swathes of territory where governance is difficult, 1.84 crore people taking a pen and paper, writing to government, asking for information, which actually is a dialogue that is happening between the citizenry and the government, that is the biggest achievement of the Right to Information: people using constitutional methods, legal methods, to demand transparency, demand accountability, demand responsibility for things that have gone wrong from the government agencies.
And of course, RTI has helped people, ordinary citizens to become activists. They are using RTI to unearth corruption – big-ticket corruption, petty corruption – and to ensure that the entitlements that are due to the most disadvantaged and underprivileged segments of society are being secured by them.
[RTI] is changing the whole notion of citizenry or citizenship from casting your vote in election once in 5 years to people engaging with the public decision making process in an informed manner. So these, I would say, are some of the major changes that are visible in India in the last 11 years that RTI law has been in operation.
It’s interesting that you said that it’s enabled the average citizen to take on an activist role. So how does the public work with the information requests – what do generally ask about and what do they do with what they receive?
There are studies which were conducted two years ago and they have been updated now in 2016. They have shown that 80% of the information requests that are submitted to government from the village level up to the level of the secretariat , which is the highest level of the administration in the states and the central government, are about people’s grievances, about the non-delivery or the poor quality of the delivery of public services. It could be about delays in providing a passport. It could be inexplicable delays in giving you a water connection despite you having fulfilled out all the procedures. It might be about you not being told why you have not been selected for a government position despite having cleared the exams. People are using the RTI in myriad ways but what studies are showing is [that] people are seeking information about why government machinery is not acting the way it’s supposed to act under the law or under the rules and regulations. So that is where the crux of the use of RTI lies: that it is increasingly being used by citizens to tone up, improve, and make the public service delivery system accountable and function according to the rules and regulations.
How do you think RTI has affected the way that people access information in India?
There is a lot more information that people are able to access now on demand thanks to a very comprehensive provision in the law that makes it compulsory for government agents to put a lot of information about their work in the public domain. People have automatic access to that through websites. Citizens’ access to information earlier, which used to be mediated through the media, is now having a competitor in the RTI, where people do not have to wait any longer for media reports to reach them about what government is doing but they can ask for themselves from the government.
In organized groups like CBOs, NGOs, and even the media, increasingly, they are using it to compel the government to reform the way it does things. We have some excellent stories of how media has used RTI for investigative journalism that has shown the problem areas in certain parts of governance and the government has treated that as feedback for filling up those gaps. RTI is serving not just as a tool for people to access information from the government but also as a tool for reforming the way government goes about its business.
Now in Sri Lanka we are at the implementation stage of this Act. From your experience of the Indian situation or any observations you have made on the Sri Lankan situation, what kind of problems should Sri Lanka expect?
The single biggest problem would be to successfully steer a change in the mindset of the bureaucracy from secrecy to transparency. And it is not because the bureaucracy has any violent tensions all the time that they want information to be held confidential. It is the uncertainty of the consequences of transparency that make them hesitant to part with information.
Now that is where a mindset change has to become a major priority for government, civil society and primarily the professional training institutes: to assure the information officers and public authorities that the consequences of disclosure – if at all they are going to be negative – are already taken care of in the law. Wherever disclosure of information is likely to harm the public interest, the law already says that such information need not be disclosed. Any other information that is fit for disclosure is ultimately about placing the truth that is kept in government records in the public domain – how can that be harmful at all? Speaking about the truth should not be considered as harmful, particularly in a land where Buddhism is the primary religion and primacy is placed on knowledge, primacy is placed on true understanding and awareness of things. I think RTI is an enabler in that direction.
I asked previously about how the public worked with RTI – what happens on the side of the government and public authorities in India?
RTI law is not something that was pushed downwards from the top, it was a demand that came from the grassroots. The demand for transparency came from a public movement that was primarily comprised of people who did not know how to read and write. Lack of transparency leading to corruption and leading to the defaultation of public funds, leading to the pilferage and leakage of public money meant for welfare programs, that affected the unlettered the most. Feedback from people , suggestions from people, recommendations from people, not just civil society organisations but ordinary citizens who have turned into activists – they have very practical and very commonsensical suggestions on how the government can improve implementation of RTI. So this pressure is what has worked in the right direction
There were attempts in the initial years in the implementation of RTI to curtail the scope of the transparency regime set down by the government. People came out on the streets to say we won’t allow you to touch the law, amend it at your own risk, we will be waiting for our opportunity during the next elections. And in fact the government that brought the RTI law contested elections on the major plank that they were responsible for changing the paradigm of secrecy that pervaded government to a paradigm of transparency and they won the elections. It is another matter, and history bears out the truth, that the transparency regime itself was responsible for disclosing all the skeletons that were there in their cupboard, scams one after the other, many of them because of the use of RTI by citizens and by other organisations. By the second round of elections, a new government had to be elected and the previous government lost power. However, the [grassroots] push factor is something that has been responsible for the implementation of RTI in India.
Now in Sri Lanka, the push factor is not as strong as it was in India in 2004/2005. It has primarily been a demand that from civil society that is based in Colombo. Unlike other laws, the RTI law is perhaps the only law of its kind which is not going to get implemented unless there is a demand from the people to implement it. All other laws, the government has to take the initiative, be it tax laws, be it penal laws, be it regulatory laws. But this is one law which is of an empowering nature (in our country it is also called social welfare legislation). This law is only going to get implemented if people make information requests. So therefore there is an urgent need to spread awareness about this law across the citizenry in Sri Lanka and one of the vectors for this exercise can be the CSOs, CBOs, definitely working in collaboration with various kinds of media, because that is the best way of spreading awareness about the RTI law so that public demand for information and effective regime of transparency gets voiced and is heard by the government that is supposed to implement this.
Once RTI is implemented and it becomes active in 2017, when people start using it, what should Sri Lanka expect in terms of citizen use of RTI?
There are going to be hiccups initially because unlike other laws, this is a unique kind of law – I cannot adequately stress that because it completely reverses the very understanding of how government should be doing its business, rather than secrecy it should be transparency. But what is important is, that rather than treating the RTI as a law that only governs the seeking and supplying of information and rather than looking at it as having to deal with it as something that somebody has written on a piece of paper and that needs to be done in a time-bound manner, it would be advisable for the public authorities in Sri Lanka to look at this as communications from the people, from the CSOs, from CBOs, about what – according to them – is not working in the government sector and use these information requests as a a feedback mechanism to bring in administrative reform and governance-related reform. If that is the attitude, the objectives of the RTI Act that are spelled out so clearly in its preamble are going to be realised in a short period of time, given the fact that your social capital is of a much higher quality in Sri Lanka as compared to your neighbouring countries in the region.