Now, YOU can officially demand to know … | Sunday Observer

Now, YOU can officially demand to know …

Outraged, are you, by the stubborn refusal of your local government to replace that century-old, dilapidated culvert with a bridge for modern traffic? Despair, do you, that the news media is too busy to take up your neighbourhood’s cause?

From this Friday, February 3rd on, you, the citizen, can take action on this and other issues of public needs unfulfilled by the responsible authority. Under the Right to Information Act that comes into effect, at long last, this Friday, every citizen will have her/his own authority to officially inquire from those responsible as to what exactly happened to their responsibility to provide or maintain whatever facility in question. Of course, dear irate Citizen, the questioning cannot be a shrill “What the … ? Why in … ? How soon, for …. sake? “

The new Right to Information Act (RTI) No. 12 of 2016 provides you, the citizen, with the services needed to ask those above questions in more sober language but, more importantly, in incisive detail that will ensure answers are provided on every aspect of that public need. And, most importantly, those responsible authorities are compelled, under the RTI Act, to provide the demanded information and answer to a deadline or face punishment by fine, or worse, under the law.

Crucially, all that is required is some physical effort and time to access the relevant ‘Information Officer’ who will service your inquiries, even guide you on the sharpest questions to ask, such as: what happened to the funds allocated? Who used it? Was there a deadline overlooked? The whole inquiry process is implemented at state cost, followed-up at state cost and, enforced – even with punishment – at state cost.

The above example of the use of the RTI Act may seem one of the more negative examples of this new and revolutionary empowerment of the citizen.

It is ‘revolutionary’ because the RTI law is a very modern institutional mechanism that addresses the enormous scale of complexity of modern human society and its management – a scale that never existed before in human society. RTI is a mechanism created for this new age.

The RTI mechanism, citizens will soon find, is new in human history in two ways: on the one hand, it enables a more accountable and, ultimately more efficient, management of society and world; on the other, it brings wholly new dimensions to the practise of democracy at the grassroots and in ways that are immediate and, directly of concern to individual citizens.

Of course, it all depends on how quickly and elaborately the mechanism is set up to enable citizens to exercise this newfound power. Encouragingly, any delay, can be questioned through the RTI mechanism itself! The RTI empowers the citizens to inquire officially from the Director-General of Government Information, the Secretary to the Minister of Parliamentary Reform & Mass Media and, the Minister and Deputy Minister (who are the responsible implementing officers) about any delay in implementation or lapse.

In short, the bureaucrats as well as the politicians are put on notice, from now on, that the Citizen will raise questions directly and expressly. Once questions are addressed via the RTI mechanism, those questioned cannot dodge the questions as is done with the news media!

From this week, you can access much information about what those, whom you voted in to power (at every level) and who are using your taxed funds, are up to since they took office.

The space of democracy widens with RTI this week not only in terms of governance and public service fulfilment.

The new service will ultimately be fleshed out with facilities to obtain all kinds of information important for the conduct of everyday life – information that resides in public sector institutions.

For example, a businessperson can ask for concrete information about future plans of the government pertaining to his areas of business. The RTI mechanism will provide free facilities to ask the relevant Ministry or Department for detailed development plans. The RTI administration will not only track the inquiry on behalf of the businessperson but will compel the relevant officials to provide the answers. All government institutions are required to bring their public information facilities up to the standard designated by the RTI administration.

Students, young people, senior citizens, social minorities and socially disempowered sectors all have equal right – and free facility - to address government and all public authorities on many aspects concerning their everyday issues and personal projects.

RTI is one fulfilled promise of this government that opens doors to the citizens in a manner that will enable citizens to appreciate the creativity of the National Unity regime. Thus, it is up to the Government and, especially, the implementing Ministry, to ensure that the RTI Act is fully implemented and enforced.

Last week also reverberated with the bombast of that group of parliamentarians and politicians calling themselves the ‘Joint Opposition’ at a political rally near Colombo, on Friday. There is a new stridency in the rhetoric of this politically indistinct group, many of whom actually cannot be “opposition” because they are members (some of them senior) of a major coalition partner in Government.

The stridency is in the clever highlighting of a dimension of governance that the current Government has been relatively untainted with – corruption. It is crucial the Government takes note of the speed with which this politically amorphous group of politicians has picked up on the few instances of reported irregularities in ministerial action and allegations of financial corruption.

The grossly intimidatory regime of the previous Rajapaksa government did not allow for the exposure of much of its huge corruption and nepotism, until the end of that government in early 2015. The liberal regime of the current government enables a transparency that is, then, used by those who wish to score points. It is sad and ironic that these ‘points’ are being scored by the very forces which are, seemingly, the biggest wrongdoers, by far.

The Government faces the challenge of living up, not just to its promises but also, to the ideals of citizens who are inspired by the bold creativity and corrective actions of this regime to expect more, and yet more. The RTI Act, properly implemented, will show more of this Government’s promise.

Much more needs to be done, however, in all other spheres, to expose the sheer hypocrisy and falsity of those now making accusations of ‘corruption’ and ‘treachery’.