Leading Right to Information (RTI) activist, Venkatesh Nayak, says that the introduction of RTI in Sri Lanka would lead to a great cultural shift in governance. “The law itself requires a paradigm shift in governance because 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 and the law provides for that access with the exception of certain circumstances when the disclosure may not be in the public interest.”
Nayak also commented that there needs to be an attitude change on part of the government officials handling these requests. “Rather than looking at [RTI] as having to deal with 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 is not working in the government sector [and] use these information requests as a feedback mechanism to bring in administrative reform and governance-related reform.”
Nayak related the experience of India where the Right to Information was won through citizen activism, leading to the RTI bill being tabled in 2004 and passed in 2005. To date, nearly twenty million RTI applications have been filed in India since the bill was passed. In a country with large scales of illiteracy and poverty, Nayak finds this remarkable. “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.” He continues, “[RTI] is changing the whole notion of citizenship from casting your vote in election once in 5 years to people engaging with the public decision making process in an informed manner.”
In Sri Lanka, however, Nayak noted that the demand for RTI has come largely from civil society activists based in Colombo and hence stressed the importance of spreading awareness about RTI in wider areas of Sri Lanka so that the law gets sufficient attention. Nayak believes that at this stage, civil society organisations, community-based organisations, and diverse media are important vectors in bringing about this awareness. ‘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,” Nayak commented. “[For] all other laws, the government has to take the initiative and take the steps and push for their implementation, be it tax laws, be it penal laws, be it regulatory laws. But this is one law which is of an empowering nature. This law is only going to get implemented only if people make information requests. Therefore there is an urgent need to spread awareness about this law across the citizenry in Sri Lanka.