RTI: The Promise and the Problems

26 November 2013

By Yek Raj Pathak

The author is senior editor at National News Agency. This article was first published in Republica.

Right to Information Sangam Biswakarma of Hetauda got just 42 marks in mathematics in his SLC exams. He was not satisfied. He was confident that he should get at least 90 in this paper. His father, a primary level teacher, had heard of the Right to Information Act, and wanted to try it out.

Sangam and his father came to Kathmandu, and applied at the Office of the Controller of Examinations demanding a copy of the examined answer sheet. The office, however, didn’t provide it to them. They went to the National Information Commission and lodged a complaint against that office. The Commission ordered the Office of the Controller of Examinations to provide the answer sheet, citing Right to Information. Sangam had secured 92 marks. He was provided with a new mark-sheet. The office of the Controller of Examinations said that there had been a mistake in the coding and decoding processes. In fact, 10 students had applied for their answer sheets that year. Four got their marks altered.

In February 2011, the Nepali economic circle was abuzz with the news that large business firms had used false VAT bills, resulting in a revenue loss of billions. After this news gained momentum, the government was forced to form an investigation committee. The committee submitted its report to the Ministry of Finance, but there was no news of any step against the fraudsters. Speculations were rife that the officers of the Finance Ministry were trying to protect the defaulters.

Taranath Dahal, a senior journalist, applied to the Ministry of Finance for a copy of the investigation report. The ministry, however, stated that the Right to Information did not apply to revenue, and denied the request. The applicant complained at the National Information Commission. Though the committee directed the Finance Ministry to make the report public, the ministry refused to do so. Finally, the National Information Commission declared that though revenue-related information falls under the Law of Secrecy, the defaulters of revenue share an offence similar to corruption, and the law doesn’t protect the corrupt. The report was published only after the Information Commission directed the Finance Ministry for the third time to make it public. The media put pressure on the government to act against the businesspersons. The government was forced to penalize the tax evaders, and a total of seven billion rupees was collected.

These two incidents depict the power of Right to Information in third world nations. Every year questions are raised regarding the examination system of our universities. Right to Information, to some extent, has alleviated the complaints that the exams are not run transparently and examinees don’t get the scores they deserve. After the establishment of this Act, students are optimistic about legal solutions, and administrators and teachers are under pressure to be sincere. In the same way, the National Information Commission, by making the names of tax-evaders public, has tamed the government tendency to put sensitive issues under Law of Secrecy. These are two revolutionary achievements in Nepal’s short practice of Right to Information.

These achievements, however, are far from satisfactory. Right to Information is already in its sixth year, but it is yet to spread all over the country. It is only on the initiation of the National Information Commission that the aforementioned achievements could be realized. But the commission itself lacks skilled manpower and leadership, and is confined to Kathmandu. Public agencies seldom give information after they receive the first application, necessitating a trip to the Information Commission for the applicants. The same law was promulgated in India in 2005, and statistics show that the people of India have used it to strengthen good governance. According to a Right to Information based NGO in India, Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, in the last six years more than four million applications were registered demanding information. In our country, however, there have been no more than a thousand such applications.

The government and the Information Commission need to raise awareness at the grassroots that information is a right as well as opportunity. In a country like ours where corruption and financial irregularities are rampant, and government agencies are not transparent, it is a far cry. The government and political leaders avoid giving information because if transparency is maintained, they lose their monopoly. After this law came into effect in Nepal in 2007, awareness on Right to Information has increased. But still, innumerable cases of financial irregularities and corruption are brought forth by the media every day.

The state has spent billions on scholarships at schools and universities. Are the targeted groups and individuals getting the scholarships? Students, teachers, and guardians of corresponding institutions need to inquire about it. There are many local agencies that create drinking water and road construction projects on paper, and embezzle the funds. Such irregularities should not be limited to news items, consumers should inquire and find the truth. Though the Act says that all public agencies should make their work, income and expenditure, and progress report public every three months, that is not done. The Health Ministry sends medicines to all health posts for free distribution, but they seldom get there. It’s high time citizens asked who really benefits from the medicines meant for the sick, and where these medicines disappear. People likewise complain they do not get the allowance and vehicle fare allotted to new mothers.

Nepal Oil Corporation incurs a heavy loss every year because coupons for free oil are provided to people with political influence. People should seek information about those parasites and make them accountable for every liter of oil they have guzzled. The Act regards political parties as public agencies. The public should investigate the source of politicians’ income, and raise questions about their property and vehicles worth millions. If the Right to Information is implemented properly, a poor nation like ours won’t need foreign aid. A single application can expose corruption and irregularities, and transparency can be maintained.

Be Sociable, Share!

Tags:

Filed under: Latest Features