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Sri Lankans Ready To Seek Answers Under New Right to Information Act

Sri Lanka’s new Right to Information Act is being hailed as one of the most extensive freedom of information acts in the world. It is the 108th country with a law allowing citizens to demand information from the government.

BATAWALA, SRI LANKA — M.V. Manjula stands near a barbed wire fence and points beyond it.

“All this land that you can see used to belong to us, 151 perches of land, almost an acre,” Manjula, 50, says. “And it was covered in fertile rubber trees that we used to tap twice a day for as far back as I can remember.”

Today the rubber trees are gone. The red earth remains, flattened by bulldozers. Beyond the fence, several cement structures, built by the state-owned Ceylon Electricity Board, are the beginnings of what is slated to become the Padukka Grid Substation.

Manjula’s family, who earned around 70,000 rupees ($462) per month from the rubber latex, lost their income from the land overnight. Manjula says that in September 2014, she and her neighbors were informed at a hastily called meeting that the government would take over the land, and despite protests, the state claimed it on Nov. 7, 2014, under powers of the Land Acquisition Act.

“We didn’t know what land we were losing until they came to mark off the land that had been taken for the project,” Manjula says.

Manjula’s family has been offered 50,000 rupees ($333) per perch as compensation by the government, but Manjula says this is far less than the value of the 100,000 rupees ($666) to 125,000 rupees ($832) a perch it is worth. Besides, she says, the offer doesn’t include value of the rubber trees or their income loss from tapping the trees.

And, she continues, three years after the government claimed the land, the community still doesn’t understand the extent of the project.

“We have no clear information about anything,” Manjula says. “What are they building here? How will it affect the electricity supply in our village and homes? What are the possible health or other risks to us? What is the damage to the environment? We know nothing!”

Manjula plans to use Sri Lanka’s new Right to Information (RTI) Act to find out more about the power station in her backyard and the decision-making process that led to acquiring the land.

The law took effect Feb. 3, and with it Sri Lanka became the 108th country that provides a way for citizens to demand information from the government. Signed into law on Aug. 4, 2016, it’s being hailed as one of the most extensive freedom of information acts in the world.

“If we had this law in 2014, we could have asked for documents about this project, like the official valuation report, from the local government office or from the village government officer,” Manjula says.

Hemantha Withanage, executive director of the Centre for Environmental Justice, says the RTI will help citizens, like Manjula, to access information without having to go through the expensive and time-consuming process of taking legal action.

“We have only been able to get access to government documents after filing legal action in courts, and the documents are only released to us, sometimes partially, after the court forces them to do so,” he says.

Withanage says the Centre for Environmental Justice plans to submit RTI requests on two large projects both involving Chinese investment: the Colombo International Financial City project and the Sri Lanka-China Industrial Zone in Hambantota.

“Information can be a powerful tool,” he says. “There are so many projects and industries that are being planned or implemented that will have major environmental consequences for which we don’t have any information right now.”

S. G. Punchihewa, one of five commissioners in the RTI Commission — an independent commission set up to create RTI standards and regulations, as well as being the law’s appellate body — encourages Sri Lankans to use the law.

“People are used to a certain culture of being denied information, and it is ingrained in them to not ask for information,” he says.

Sri Lankans need to understand that they can now ask for, and expect to receive, information from their government, Punchihewa says.

“A law itself cannot create or change a culture — that is done by people. And there must be a demand, or a force from the people,” he says.

Nishantha Prithviraj, national leader of citizens group Deshodaya, says the group will work with Manjula in developing an RTI request about the power station.

Deshodaya is working on raising awareness about the RTI law and is planning to create RTI hubs in five districts, where people can find help in filling out RTI applications and receive other advice about using the law to gain access to government information.

“We must create a culture of questioning,” Prithviraj says. “We don’t have that now.

“We want to make RTI a practical law,” he says. “It mustn’t become only an activist tool. We will support them at the start, because as they file cases and are successful in their applications, the news will spread and encourage others.”

Punchihewa says the law will only be effective if it is used.

“The citizen is the powerful man, and should understand that the information held by government is theirs,” he says. “People need to say, I am the owner of that information, you are only the trustee here. That ownership [of information] is not understood by the people.”

Sankhitha Gunaratne, manager of Right to Information at Transparency International Sri Lanka, has been closely involved with both state and civil society in issues of implementing the RTI law as well as creating awareness among the public about the law.

“The RTI ensures participation of people in governance between elections,” she says. “So while it gives you the right, it also gives you the responsibility of being an active citizen.”

It also assures government that the public will hold them accountable, Gunaratne says.

Punchihewa points out that proactive disclosure of information by government, which is an integral part of the RTI law, is an important new step for government.

“I think this proactive disclosure is a turning point, because the officials have to change themselves to engage with people,” he says.

Piyatissa Ranasinghe, RTI consultant to the Ministry of Parliamentary Reforms and Mass Media — the agency responsible for ensuring implementation of the law — says state agencies welcome requests for information and are proactive in disclosing information.

“Government officials are willing to do it,” he says, in a phone interview.

But answering requests for information isn’t always easy, Ranasinghe says.

The biggest challenge he sees is that a large part of government information and documentation is not digitized, but should be within five years. “Some of our recording systems go back 150 years,” Ranasinghe says. “It is all there, but it’s not easily accessed.”

Government officials’ attitudes about releasing information could be another challenge, Punchihewa warns. “Government [officials are] used to thinking that they will make the decisions, and the citizens will have to support it,” he says. “It should be otherwise. The citizens will create the systems of government, to be used for themselves.”

Withanage says that based on his experience in working with local communities on environmental campaigns, he questions whether local communities will have the confidence and ability to deal with powerful government agencies.

“Local people are interested when it comes to their local issues but only a few people have the capacity to deal with government and the bureaucracy,” he says.

Ranasinghe disagrees, saying the government has carried out training programs for all ministries, departments and agencies at national, provincial and district levels. “I think the public administrative systems will be more participatory and there will be deeper integration and they will eventually work more efficiently,” he says. “They know they will be held accountable. I think most of them are ready now, and they want this.”

Civil society organizations like Transparency International Sri Lanka and Deshodaya say they will monitor implementation of the RTI Act, and continue to create awareness among citizens to encourage them to use it as a tool for more participatory governance.

“We are very hopeful of this law creating more openness in government,” Gunaratne says.

Punchihewa says the RTI Commission will also be closely monitoring and supervising the RTI process as it rolls out.

“With this Act, I think people will understand what democracy is,” Punchihewa says. “Democracy is not other people giving us something; we should acquire it by way of using our rights and possibilities.”

The RTI act can create a more empowered Sri Lankan citizen, Punchihewa says. And that would be transformational for the country, he says.

“It is citizens who create the government, and a country is changed only by citizens,” he says. “To do that they need to have both the knowledge and the practice of their rights. For the practice of rights, this law and its implementation are going to be very vital.”

Manori Wijesekera, GPJ, translated two interviews from Sinhala.

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