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A role model in RTI Commission

It is encouraging to see that Sri Lanka’s Right to Information (RTI) Commission has released its 2017 budget estimate, including the salary scales of the Commission members and staff along with its recruitment procedures and cadre provision.

As the Commission Chairperson has pointed out in a response sent to a citizen, who had requested that information, this is only an estimate, which is now being discussed by the Commission with the Ministry of Finance, as required in terms of the RTI Act, No. 12 of 2016. The Commission was hampered at the start by not having a separate budgetary allocation in the National Budget for 2017.

Three members, Mahinda Gammanpila (Chairperson), Kishali Pinto-Jayawardena and S.G. Punchihewa were appointed in October last year by President Maithripala Sirisena on the recommendation of the Constitutional Council. But the other two members, A.W.A. Salam and Selvy Thiruchandran were appointed only at the end of the year.

As a result, the Commission has only now been able to start getting its allocations in order. Nevertheless, the fact that even the budget estimates were provided in response to a request by a citizen is a pointer to the new transparent culture that Sri Lanka needs to embrace. This could be a role model for public authorities, including the other Independent Commissions.

Regulation 20 Gazetted under the RTI Act on February 3 this year imposes this obligation in general. Some institutions may hesitate to provide budget details fearing damage done by mischief makers.

But they need not fear. Competition, if this is what they fear, can be out in the open. Where there is a real danger, the RTI Act itself provides exceptions to providing information. That is, of course, subject to the public interest.

Therefore, the fear factor should not stifle the provision of information. The RTI Commission’s action is a clarion call that others need to follow regardless of apprehensions. Certainly mischief makers are galore, where RTI is concerned. Some seem to want the RTI culture to fail. Others are indignant about the Main Stream Media and its failings.

However, when they point three fingers at someone else, it is worthwhile to remember that two fingers point back at them. As the great religions teach us, the truth will always triumph.

Meanwhile, the Government is slowly but surely coming under the RTI Law. The Cabinet of Ministers has appointed an Information Officer as have many other Ministries, including the Foreign Affairs Ministry. We also heard the glad news that the Moratuwa Municipal Council has complied with its voluntary disclosure requirements.

The MC publicly advertised a list of projects for which Rs. 27 million has been allocated, stating that this advertisement was “For all persons that (who) may be affected in terms of the provisions of the Right to Information Act No. 12 of 2016,” by a list of projects to be undertaken.

The 40 projects include repairs to drains, paving roads and construction of boundary walls.

It is also heartening to see a professional body, the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Sri Lanka, conforming to the RTI Law and appointing its Information Officer and publishing details relevant to the RTI Act up on its websites. It is a good move. We understand that RTI requests are being filed against Non-Governmental Organisations, which engage in State projects covered by the RTI Act.

The RTI seeds, which are today, in some cases, planted on inhospitable or dry soil, may be the genesis of a bountiful harvest many years later for Sri Lanka.

So, this is why seekers of information and the RTI Commission must hammer away, despite mischievous obstacles being put in its way. This country will be beholden to these genuine pioneers of RTI, who persevere, disregarding the stones that will inevitably be thrown at them.

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