RTI Bill not to be introduced in Parliament
Despite many talks, debates and discussions about the Right to Information (RTI) Bill, the Bill will not be introduced within the tenure of the current government.
The government had promised to have the RTI Act in place which gradually lost priority as the Lyonchhen and senior government officials cited other important issues to cater to.
Later, the government said that it would introduce the bill before the end of its term. Finally, it has been made clear that the Bill will not be introduced at all.
In 2008 itself the Prime Minister in a meeting with senior civil servants said that the RTI would be introduced soon after catering to some important bills.
Ministry of Information and Communication (MoIC) is the parent ministry responsible for drafting the government’s version of RTI Bill. Lyonpo Nandalal Rai had told the National Council (NC) during the 2010 winter session of parliament that the RTI Act would be ready before 2012.
In the 2011 Round Table Meeting with donors Lyonpo Yeshey Zimba in response to a query assured that the RTI Bill would come in before the end of this government’s term.
However, while MoIC’s Department of Information and Media (DoIM) had come up with a final draft recently, the cabinet decided not to introduce any new bills in the upcoming parliamentary session which is also the last for the incumbent members.
DoIM director Kinley T. Wangchuk said the Bhutan Information Communications and Media Amendment (ICM) Bill 2012 and the RTI Bill was scheduled to be put up to the parliament together.
“In fact we went with the intention to present it to the cabinet but then in the cabinet sitting, Lyonchhen expressed appreciation towards the department for the work done and at the same time indicated that the government will not be able to present any new bills since it is the last session for the current government,” the director said.
He said “Lyonchhen considered both the bills as very important ones and said they would not be able to give the bills the due attention or diligence because it is the last session.”
DoIM didn’t have to make any presentations to the cabinet on both the bills.
The original Draft RTI Bill had been drafted in 2007 along with the Constitution by the then High Court as the Constitution guaranteed the Right to Information under Fundamental Rights.
However, from 2008 itself the elected government though making many verbal commitments put the Bill on the backburner for many years.
The RTI Bill would ensure that government agencies have to share public information with citizens thereby reducing corruption and improving good governance. For example under RTI a farmer could find out the budget of a canal construction and how efficiently it was used, or a citizen could find out why he was not allotted a plot in an urban area by the urban plot allotment committee and hold them accountable.
The NC member from Gasa, Sangay Khandu attempted to introduce the RTI Bill as a private members bill during the ninth session of parliament in June 2012.
The draft RTI Bill was submitted to the NC Chairperson on March 16, 2012 to be tabled as Bill in the 9th session of Parliament and also distributed to all the members of the upper house.
After Sangay Khandu’s Draft RTI Bill failed to gain enough support to be included in the agenda for the 9th session of parliament, he proposed for it to be legislated in the 10th session.
However, this was shelved after the move failed to garner enough votes in the National Council. From the House’s 25 members, eight supported the Bill, nine abstained and six voted against the motion but the recommendation that the awareness on RTI should be inclusive was approved and passed by the house.
On the other hand, a five member research team comprising of students from Columbia University (CU), working under Professor Annya Schiffrin in New York has been involved in the government’s version of the draft RTI Bill.
The MoIC had in mid 2011 commissioned the team named ‘Bhutan RTI Law Group’ to do a thorough research on the Bhutan’s draft RTI Bill. The team had used a combination of research and interviews with various experts around the world including judges, journalists, parliamentarians and common citizens who have RTI laws in their country.
Two member researchers of the team, Ethan Wagner and Rebecca Chao who were in the country in June 2012 told The Bhutanese during their visit that RTI will benefit Bhutan, incur low cost of implementation and will be easier to have sooner than later
They also pointed out that some of the happiest and most transparent ranked countries in the world have RTI.
Earlier this year DoIM organized a two day awareness seminar on RTI in capital which saw experts from India, Bangladesh, USA and the World Bank. All of them advised Bhutan to adopt RTI as an important tool for good governance, transparency, democratization and also to prevent corruption.
The experts also said that RTI Law will benefit the developmental philosophy of Gross National Happiness (GNH).
The experts pointed out that India had to wait for 56 years to have RTI as it failed to pass it in the first five years. They also said that it would be easier for Bhutan to have RTI now than in the future as information became more cumbersome and vested interest that don’t want transparency take over. An expert also said that the question of waiting for the right time could also be an alibi of whether RTI was needed at all.
A participant at the seminar, the Founder and former convener of National Campaign for People in RTI Shekhar Singh said “Poorer people in India use the RTI law since they cannot afford to pay bribes.”
The Chairperson of National Commission on Minorities of India and former Chief Information Commissioner, Wajahat Habibullah also present at the seminar said, information that concerns the security, sovereignty, economic security, are some of the 10 categories of information which are not accessible to people.
During the awareness meeting, MoIC minister Nandalal Rai committed the government’s support to RTI.
The Specialist for Public Sector Management at World Bank, Vikram Chand who was also at the seminar stressed that RTI is not only about access to information but a very important component of good governance.
Wajahat Habibullah has said that without RTI in 60 years of democracy in India, people were still unaware of achievements of elected government, what they are doing and their future plans.
The current RTI Bill was also found to have some flaws by RTI experts in the region and also local observers.
The DoIM director said since the legislation of the Bill has been deferred; it would allow additional time and opportunity to create awareness at the grass root level. He said RTI should benefit the farmers and the disadvantaged a lot.
“So, we were in a way happy that the Bill was put on hold because there were more inputs coming and it also provides us space to look at it in a greater detail and more thoroughly. We can carry out broad based awareness programme as well,” the director said.