Friday, June 27, 2008

Roadblocks on the Right to Information highway

27 June, 2008 - The Right to Information Act is almost equivalent to a state secret in Bhutan, with even senior political figures expressing surprise that there existed such a draft act. There is also no indication from the government on when they plan to introduce this vital act in parliament.

Already 59 countries have information acts in place, while 19 more are on their way. Somalia, Rwanda, Iraq, Nepal, North Korea and Iran do not have this act.

The truth for a majority of our Bhutanese brethren is that, while they may be quite open with one another, there is a awed and dumbstruck attitude when dealing with officialdom.

A sad sight is watching village folks walking meekly into government offices and dzongs, some of them carrying gifts for even basic functions. Inside, they are at the mercy of clerks or even 'dashos'. All this arrogance is with good reason, especially in the villages, because these officials or even gups' offices control all information on everything from birth to death certificates.

The absence of a Right to Information Act to make these characters sit up will consign 80 percent of our population, living on subsistence agriculture, to this never ending cycle of red tape.
Officialdom in Bhutan has too much power over the people in Bhutan and this power is deeper in areas where the information flow is less.

In the urban areas like Thimphu, information restriction has a more sophisticated and sinister role. Many of our ministries and government agencies are fortresses of information and laws unto themselves, keeping out anybody not in the circle of access. Many juniors are left wondering why they never hear from their seniors of trainings or foreign trips until it is too late. Many accountants are left wondering how an officer sitting in his office the whole week just made a travel claim of countless ngultrums. Honest businessmen scratch their heads when fronting companies do well and get away under the nose of authority. Common people shake their heads in disbelief when infrastructure projects turn into expensive and rundown white elephants to be repeated over and over again. Even some of the new private media, claiming to represent our times, are thinly veiled money making and flexible ventures, more worried about advertisement revenue and revealing pictures.

With these few examples of our 'transparent and open system' in vogue, we are on the verge of implementing our biggest plan size of around Nu 140 billion with poverty alleviation as the main aim.

Even at the local government level, the last time the government released some small funds, many gups all over the country got embroiled in corruption cases. For the sake of around 80 percent of our country, living on subsistence farming and 24 percent below the poverty line, we cannot afford to make any wrong moves this time around.

In this context, the stated aim of this government is to strengthen ACC, who themselves say that the lack of information flow is the main cause of corruption. So, instead of only strengthening the investigative mechanism, it will be far more useful to introduce RTI and make sure that the system has clauses designed to prevent corruption.

Many bureaucrats may not be happy with the RTI Act, stating that it could be used to harass officers or take up time. But experience in other countries has shown that RTI in the end has always led to overall cost and time savings, better civic life, more accountability and fairness in the system. This also means that those, who are not well organized, transparent, accountable or efficient, may fall victim to their own weakness. There will be the initial hiccups of transition but the short-term pains will be far outweighed by the long-term gains.

A supporting Act to RTI to protect people in government who expose corruption or injustice will go a long way in rooting out the bad apples.

One way to kill RTI will be to pass it with inspiring and sweet speeches but do nothing to promote or enforce it. Even the courts will be able to handle only so many RTI appeal cases at a time. The government must launch RTI awareness campaigns, especially in the villages, and ensure that all organisations comply with the demands of the Act.
By Tenzing Lamsang

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