Bangladesh Researchers Report Encouraging Findings

22 October 2015

“Significant progress is taking place and there is reason for optimism,” report Shamsul Bari and Ruhi Naz in an article in The Daily Star based on their examination of  decisions by the Information Commission over the past one year.

“Of course, we were also disappointed by many shortfalls that prevail,” they added, but they highlighted “positive developments.”

The writers are Chairman, Research Initiatives, Bangladesh (RIB) and Project Coordinator, Project Coordinator (RTI section), RIB respectively.

On the positive side, they listed:

1)     The number of complaints to the IC and the latter’s ability to deal with them professionally has increased significantly. While 324 hearings took place between 2010 and July 2014, the number was 252 in a year since then, which is an increase of 80 percent.

2)     The geographical spread of the applicants/complainants has grown. Complaints originated from 28 of 64 districts of the country. The majority are from Dhaka (92), Satkhira (33), Kishoreganj (15), Kushtia (15), Nilphamari (10), Dinajpur (9), Comilla (9). Some also came from very remote districts. Perhaps they reflect the efficacy of awareness building efforts by government/IC and support from NGOs.

3)     The composition of applicants/complainants has changed appreciably. While earlier, marginalised communities were predominant, they have been surpassed by the emergence of middle and educated classes. There are more social activists, journalists, educationists and other professionals among the applicants. 13 percent are women.

4)     As for nature of applications, while the earlier predominant focus on personal issues (mainly safety-net related) is still there (45 percent), transparency and accountability related public interest issues have surged (51 percent). They include malpractices in land record management, distribution of khas (govt.) land, banking sector, educational institutions, health clinics, implementation of public contracts, police work, government audits, work of Public Service Commission, Union Councils, district administration, city corporations, water and power development board, large public sector contracts, Bapex, Rajuk, the Prime Minister’s office and so on. This is an amazing transformation from the more sedate and mundane issues of the past. The fact that citizens are asking for sensitive information even from the Prime Minister’s office indicates growing confidence of citizens in the system.

5)     Faced with increased and varied complaints, the IC too has gained in confidence and expertise. It is meeting more regularly and releasing decisions more promptly, contributing to more trust in the system. The IC has sought to justify its decisions, though there is scope for much improvement. One may not agree with all the decisions, but IC’s efforts to deal with complaints of such large and varied nature more professionally deserve recognition. A heartening development is its imposition of fines on four defaulting officials in a year compared to a total of three in the previous five years. It has also awarded compensation to five indigent complainants from an indigenous community (Bagdis) to defray their costs for travel and accommodation in Dhaka. It asked the respondents to compensate because of their failure to respond timely to the applications. It also recommended administrative action against defaulting officials. This will endear the IC to ordinary applicants.

6)     The emergence of a sizable number of RTI activists who regularly submit complaints to the IC is also significant. Statistics show that 99 cases (40 percent) resulted from multiple applications, mainly from activists. In 41 cases (16.2 percent), complaints were renewed for non-disclosure of information even after IC directives. It may be recalled that activists played a critical role in advancement of RTI in India. Delhi Chief Minister, Arvind Kejriwal, was an activist before turning politician.

Discouraging Side

The discouraging developments included:

1)     Out of 252 cases considered, in 205 cases (80 percent), the officials concerned provided or agreed to provide information only after being summoned and directed by the IC. It shows their continuing reluctance to provide information willingly.

2)     In 75 cases (29 percent), concerned public officials got away by denying receipt of the applications, though they were mostly sent by registered mail. If this is not checked, it will continue to hinder progress and encourage recalcitrant officials to use this escape route.

3)     The difficulty, sometimes the impossibility, of obtaining names and particulars of designated officers (DOs) and appeal authority continue to deter applicants. This is compounded by the fact that IC too tends to believe that mistakes in addressing applications/appeals to specifically designated officials would result in rejection. Consideration to allow addressing applications to posts, rather than to persons, is seriously called for.

4)     The frequent postponement of dates for complaint hearings due to absence mostly of government officials causes serious financial hardship and frustration to indigent/ordinary complainants. Alternative complaint hearing arrangements thus deserve serious consideration.

5)     In 19 percent of cases, the complainants were absent at hearings, claiming they were provided the information after summons were issued on parties. This may or may not be true in all cases. It would be good to find out if cost of travel/accommodation or intimidation played any role.

6)     While the IC deserves commendation for having imposed fines on four public officials and awarding compensation to five indigent complainants during the period covered, in most cases (98.5 percent), the respondents got away without any penalty. It may be recalled that the High Court Division, in a 2011 writ petition [Writ Petition 8118 of 2011 cited in CLR (HCD) 2014], took the view that such penalties are to be considered mandatory under the law. The provision is there to chastise public servants for their disobedience of the law.

The authors praised a government project titled “Connecting Government with Citizens: Strategic Plan on Implementing Right to Information Act, Bangladesh.” The project established District Advisory Committees (DAC), composed of 15 members representing all government offices and civil society in each district, and the activities “already undertaken appear to have contributed to spreading greater awareness among officials.”

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