Using the RTI Law in Bangladesh

7 January 2015

A report by the Asia Foundation on right to know laws in three Southeast Asian countries. (See FreedomInfo.org report.) The report includes an annex with case studies about the use of the laws. Reprinted below is the section on Bangladesh.

Applying RTI in the Shrimp Sector

Social Activities for the Environment (SAFE), a Bangladesh NGO, has been an advocate for workers’ rights in Bangladesh’s shrimp sector since 2003.

When the Bangladesh government declared a minimum wage for the shrimp processing industry in November 2009, SAFE decided to study the implementation of the new wage law. This required first determining the number of shrimp processors in the SAFE project area that had adopted the new minimum wage. No one anticipated the long and arduous process that getting such a simple piece of information would entail.

A SAFE staff member, Asad, sought information from the Khulna Department of Labor on the number of shrimp processing plants that had adopted the new minimum wage. On July 15, 2010, Asad went in person to the office of the designated officer (DO), the deputy chief inspector, and applied for the information in accordance with the RTI Act. But the DO did not cooperate, forcing Asad to take his request to the DO’s superior, the chief inspector of the Department of Labor. When he failed to get a response, Asad lodged a complaint with the chief information commissioner on September 30, 2010.

Asad was subsequently informed that 39 shrimp factories had implemented the new minimum wage, but SAFE found this number to be incorrect. In fact, only 34 factories were in operation while the rest were closed. In March 2011, after a series of hearings at the office of the chief information commissioner, the commission ordered the deputy chief inspector to provide accurate information to the applicant. The deputy chief inspector and two of his colleagues were also rebuked by the commission for their delaying tactics. Asad finally got the information on March 27, 2011. “My constitutional rights can’t be overlooked, as I am a citizen. My persistent efforts finally gave me the results — the requested information. If you try with patience, nothing remains unattainable,” said Asad.

All 34 shrimp processing factories in the SAFE project area are implementing the new minimum wage for their workers. And SAFE’s request for information has made the Khulna Department of Labor more responsive.

RTI Empowers Rural Farmers

A community of landless farmers in Amanullah Union, an administrative division in the Bangladeshi port city of Chittagong, successfully challenged the union council and thwarted a plan to impose illegal fees when they used the RTI Act to get a copy of the Amanullah Union’s budget for 2010–11.

When the Bangladeshi government announced a new “agriculture input assistance card” to provide cash subsidies to small farmers, the Amanullah Union Parishad (the union council) announced a fee of BDT 20.00 each for the cards. The farmers challenged the decision and asked why they should pay for a benefit the government provided for free. The union council first claimed that the fees were part of union revenues under its annual budget. But the farmers had used the RTI Act to obtain a copy of the union’s budget, which was found to contain no such line item. The union council conceded that the fee was not in the budget, but still argued that it was an essential revenue source for the union. When union officials refused to give farmers a legal receipt for the fee, the farmers organized and eventually defeated the illegal payment scheme.

RTI Reveals BGMEA Bhaban Facts

In early 2011, Bangladesh’s High Court declared that the BGMEA Bhaban, the grandiose new office building of the country’s most powerful trade body, the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association, was an illegal construction. The court ruled that the building, located in the Karwan Bazar area of the capital city of Dhaka, had been illegally built on a wetland, and ordered it bulldozed within 90 days.

The garment manufacturers promptly appealed to the Supreme Court. The legal process continues, but the case provides an encouraging example of how green activists were able to use the Right to Information Act.

On July 08, 2009, the Bangladesh Environmental Lawyers Association (BELA) filed an RTI request with Dhaka’s real estate regulator, Rajdhani Unnayan Kortripokkho (RAJUK), for information about the BGMEA Bhaban. BELA was seeking documents approving the BGMEA building plan, explaining why RAJUK allowed BGMEA to build on a wetland, etc. When RAJUK did not respond in a timely manner, BELA applied again on December 17, 2009, but to no avail. BELA then appealed to the secretary of the Ministry of Housing and Public Works, the appellate authority for RAJUK.

When a response was not forthcoming, BELA lodged a complaint with the Information Commission, which eventually forced RAJUK to comply, handing over the requested information to BELA on September 19, 2010. The documents clearly showed that BGMEA had violated the terms and conditions related to the building’s approval. With the documents obtained under the RTI Act, BELA was able to mount a legal challenge against the BGMEA in the High Court of Bangladesh.

Recovering His Birth Certificate

Masud Rana is a resident of Nabagram Road in the divisional township of Barisal in southern Bangladesh. He registered for a birth certificate during a birth registration campaign in October 2010. After months had gone by without a word, Rana enquired with the appropriate office of the Barisal City Corporation, where he discovered that the responsible public officers had lost his birth certificate.

Rana expected the officers to act quickly to rectify their mistake, but instead he found himself asking again and again for his birth certificate, to no avail. Finally, Rana filed a request under the Right to Information Act asking for his birth certificate. It worked. The designated officer for birth registration said he would cooperate if Rana would withdraw his RTI request. The officer did act, and Rana got his birth certificate thanks to the RTI provisions.

Masud Rana later realized that, thanks to an RTI awareness workshop organized by local civic groups, he had effectively exercised his right to information as a citizen of Bangladesh.

RTI Made Them Informed Citizens

Manik Mukhter lives in a village in a northern district of Rangpur. He had seen many public works projects in his area — the government spending taxpayers’ money to create seasonal jobs for the rural population — yet he and his fellow citizens were unaware about the true extent of the work going on around them. Manik decided to file an RTI application to find out what projects were planned or underway, the cost and scale of the work, the number of workers employed, and the wages being paid.

On October 6, 2010, Manik Mukhter filed two RTI applications with the office of the Rangpur Sadar Upazila project implementation officer (PIO). In his RTI applications, Manik asked how many people were employed by the Haridevpur Union’s employment generation program during the 2009–10 fiscal year; he sought the names of people employed, the wages paid, and the criteria for employment. Twenty days later, the PIO gave Manik a 37-page document. Through Manik’s efforts, and the RTI Act 2009, he and his fellow villagers received some vital information about their rights and entitlements, job eligibility, and wages.

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