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Four Lessons for Improving RTI in South Asia

March 30, 2016

By Ashley Clark

Globally, 100 countries have enacted right to information (RTI) legislation guaranteeing citizens the right to access information and records held by their governments. Over the last decade, South Asian countries have made significant progress toward recognizing this right. From 2002 to 2009, governments in Bangladesh, India, Nepal, and Pakistan formally adopted RTI legislation. More recently, RTI bills have been passed in Bhutan and the Maldives, with draft legislation currently under consideration in Afghanistan and Sri Lanka.

community meeting in Nepal

Over the last decade, South Asian countries have made significant progress toward recognizing the right to access information. Despite this momentum, levels of public awareness and implementation vary widely. Photo/Conor Ashleigh

Despite this momentum, levels of public awareness and implementation vary widely. Anjali Bhardwaj, a RTI activist in India and founder of the Satark Nagrik Sangathan, a citizens’ group working to promote transparency and accountability in government, recently joined Asia Foundation experts and other leading RTI voices for a webinar discussion on developments and challenges in the enactment of RTI laws in South Asia. “We realized very early on in the RTI movement that people are not interested in information purely for the sake of information,” she said. “They are interested in information if it means that they are able to access their rights which are being denied to them, and if that information enables them to hold their governments accountable.”

Bhardwaj presented an example from India during the discussion of the use of the RTI Act by the poor and marginalized to access their subsidized food supplies from the government. In India, the government distributes subsidized food and non-food items to India’s poor through a network of “fair price shops,” also known as ration shops. In 2004, slum dwellers, along with a local non-profit, began filing applications under the Delhi Right to Information Act 2001 in order to access the records of their ration shops. They found that shopkeepers were regularly siphoning rationed wheat, rice, and sugar and selling it to fictitious ration-card holders. Armed with this newly acquired information, the citizens were not only able to receive their fair share of subsidized food, but able to improve the long-term management of the public distribution system.

Despite the concrete benefits RTI laws can have on people’s lives, according to a recent Asia Foundation report, there has been limited investigation into the key factors that enable or prevent the effective implementation of RTI in countries in the region. A number of these factors emerged from our webinar discussion. Here are four key takeaways:

  1. Penalties and protections matter. Penalties would be useful in certain egregious cases where civil servants fail to respond to RTI requests as mandated by law. For example, in India, individual information officers can be penalized if they do not respond adequately to citizens’ requests; however, this provision is rarely enforced. But in addition to the threat of personal liability, civil servants should also have whistleblower protections. Whistleblower protections encourage people to come forward and identify corruption to appropriate authorities. While RTI is about making information public, under whistleblowers protection the content of the complaint is not publicly disclosed; rather, information is filed before the appropriate authorities who are authorized to receive and inquire into such complaints and are also empowered to ensure protection of the complainant.Asoka Obeyesekere, executive director at Transparency International, Sri Lanka, explained that protecting civil servants who disclose information on corruption can encourage the flow of information just as much as penalizing individuals for non-disclosure. Whistleblowers have helped save billions of dollars in public funds while simultaneously preventing emerging scandals and disasters from worsening. The absence of effective protection can therefore pose a dilemma for whistleblowers: they are often expected to report corruption and other crimes, but doing so can expose them to retaliation. Whistleblower laws already exist in Bangladesh and India, but need to be actively promoted and effectively implemented. Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka have yet to develop comprehensive legislation to protect whistleblowers.
  2. Keep it civil. Civil society is essential in effective implementation and protection of RTI laws. Civil society can play a useful role in helping to spread awareness and promote use of the law by different stakeholder groups. In India, for example, civil society has built the capacity of individual citizens to use RTI. Bhardwaj explained that citizens in India no longer wait for NGOs to seek information; they are able to do it for themselves. In 2011-2012 alone, between four and six million RTI applications were filed in India.
  3. Look for political openings. Gopa Thampi, director of Economic Governance in The Asia Foundation’s Sri Lanka office, said that in contexts characterized by legislative impasse and political resistance, non-confrontational interventions can offer new pathways and quick wins to advocates for the RTI law. After seeing that a national RTI law in Sri Lanka had become too politicized, Thampi and his team instead focused on promoting proactive disclosure among government agencies. He also found space to integrate RTI provisions at the sub-national level of government. While waiting for national RTI laws to be enacted, there is still much that can be done to keep the discourse active.
  4. You can use RTI laws to bolster RTI laws. In India, activists have set up a dedicated group called the RTI Assessment & Advocacy Group (RaaG) to undertake ongoing evaluation of the implementation of the RTI Act. RaaG used the Indian RTI law to assess the implementation of the RTI law across the country. RaaG examined RTI applications and outcomes, and used this information to counter government claims that the majority of RTI applications were frivolous, demonstrating instead that 67 percent of applications sought information that the government should have automatically provided without receiving an RTI application. Less than 1 percent of RTI applications were found to be frivolous or vexatious.

Panelists agreed that RTI laws not only have the ability to dramatically change citizens’ access to information, but can also empower individuals to gain greater control over their rights. With a better understanding of the challenges surrounding RTI, it is hoped that those governments in the region that have not yet adopted RTI legislation to take steps to do so, and we hope that greater knowledge of how to implement RTI laws will enable governments to increase their responsiveness to individual citizens.

Ashley Clark is a program associate with The Asia Foundation’s Governance and Law Program. She can be reached at [email protected]. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and not those of The Asia Foundation or its funders.

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In Asia is a weekly in-depth, in-country resource for readers who want to stay abreast of significant events and issues shaping Asia's development, hosted by The Asia Foundation. Drawing on the first-hand insight of over 70 renowned experts in over 20 countries, In Asia delivers concentrated analysis on issues affecting each region of Asia, as well as Foundation-produced reports and polls.

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