Debating RTI in earnest

Whenever Bhutan has stood on the cusp of some major change, there has always been hesitation, doubts and fears, but eventually the country, its leaders and its people have taken the path going forward.

Even when democracy was introduced, the Bhutanese people had to be cajoled and convinced by our wise Kings to first accept and ultimately to embrace it.

With the RTI Bill on the cusp of becoming an Act, the Bill still has its fair share of naysayers and doubters mainly among the bureaucratic and political class of Bhutan.

In the case of RTI, it is up to the citizens of the country who want RTI to cajole and convince our political leaders, and also the behind the scene bureaucratic players to not only accept RTI but also ensure it is a strong Act.

The current situation of the RTI Bill shows that the government will pass it as it was an important election pledge, but they are not really convinced of the need to have a strong and good RTI Act.

Going by the discussions in the Parliament, Opposition MPs have questioned the need for RTI Bill at this stage and are calling for the Bill to be delayed so that more ‘consultations’ are carried out. There are some in the ruling party who may be tempted to agree with the Opposition and delay the Bill or if that is not possible-considerably weaken it.

The fact that the greatest anxiety against the RTI Bill is coming from this political and bureaucratic class that holds all executive power and information proves the point that RTI is mainly about genuinely empowering ordinary citizens.

However, if this politico-bureaucratic class keeps an open mind, accepts the spirit of RTI which is Transparency and Accountability and understands the Bill then all their fears will not stand up to reason.

The biggest fear expressed eloquently but selectively by the former Health Minister in Parliament is that RTI will paralyze the system with a people seeking information and not allowing bureaucrats to do much else.

This is not the first time such a fear has been expressed. It was used as one of the arguments against RTI in several countries before RTI was introduced. However, once RTI came in, the system was not paralyzed as some predicted, but in fact it became more efficient.

Paralysis is a result of chaos and disorganization, and currently the storage and distribution of information in Bhutan is both chaotic and disorganized. Forget about ordinary citizens even government agencies have no idea what another agency is doing.

The RTI Bill gives a two-year grace period to all agencies to systematically organize and then progressively publicize 15 categories of public information. The bulk of information seekers will not even file RTI petitions as the information will already be available in the public domain.

Some MPs also called for more time to consult the people and discuss it. As evidenced from what the DPT government did- this is nothing more than a delaying tactic to not bring in the Bill. The RTI Bill has been one of the most heavily publicized, consulted, discussed and debated bills going through several drafts in the last six years with citizens generally supporting it to the point of it being a major election issue.

Another point raised is that when the Constitution has already granted the Right to Information as a fundamental right- why then is there a need for a separate Act?

An RTI Act is needed for the simple reason that ACC, RAA or any other agency have Acts. It is not sufficient to mention about the creation of ACC and RAA in the Constitution as its true operationalization can happen only through an Act.

Also in the absence of the RTI Act, a lot of public information which should be granted is kept from public view using much lesser rules and procedures.

One additional fear is that the RTI Act could be misused to deny information that is available even now. Those who say this point to exemption clauses in the Bill that allows agencies to deny certain information. This is again a misunderstanding as in the absence of RTI- precious little information is available. Though some exemption clauses should be removed it is vastly better to have a Bill then not have one in the interest of transparency.

The positive aspects of RTI like- fighting corruption, improving good governance, transparency and accountability have all been discussed and highlighted. These obvious advantages were acknowledged by some ministers and MPs mainly from the ruling party.

As highlighted by the Home Minister, the Parliament does not have the luxury of delaying or not passing the Bill. This is because the Constitution already grants it as a fundamental right which has precedence over any other Act or rules and can be upheld by the court.

Some senior judges that this paper talked to have already pointed out that if any citizen brings the first case on enforcing RTI- the judiciary will have no choice but to pass a binding judgment on all government agencies to respect RTI. Such a judgment in the absence of an Act could even be much more open and liberal than what the government would be prepared for.

However, there is also a more sinister reason as to why the politico-bureaucratic class is not in favour of RTI. If one goes through the ever increasing cases of embezzlement, abuse of power, policy corruption, nepotism, crony capitalism, corruption, irregularities in reports of ACC, RAA and the media the main culprits are from this politico-bureaucratic class.

While RTI is good for the system, good for transparency and good for the people and nation- it, however, does not suit some vested interests in this politico-bureaucratic class who can operate freely and often illegally under the cloak of secrecy. It is the shadowy

world that denies deserving candidates’ jobs, rewards corrupt officers, increases crony capitalism, etc. Sunlight or in this case RTI, would be the best disinfectant that they are trying their best to avoid through a campaign of misinformation, brainwashing, and fear mongering.

As visible from the 2013 elections- many of our politicians or even aspiring politicians could not make it through mainly because of the disconnect with their voters, among other reasons.

Bhutanese politicians irrespective of whichever party should realize that RTI is not the usual agency specific law they can take lightly or ignore, but it is a law equivalent to rights like Right to Vote or Freedom of Expression that empowers ordinary citizens.

Denying this right to the people will definitely have adverse political consequences for any political party or politician. It will also leave our democracy poorer and encourage the more regressive characteristics of state power like secrecy, abuse of power, nepotism, corruption, etc.

Ultimately the success of the RTI Bill rests in the hands of ordinary citizens who have to not only ensure that a good bill comes through, but also make use of it effectively once it is enacted. If politicians and elected representatives fail to come up with the Act then it will only be a matter of time before the Judiciary will have to uphold RTI and pass a binding judgment on all government agencies whether they are prepared to do so or not.

I’ve come to learn there is a virtuous cycle to transparency and a very vicious cycle of obfuscation.
Jeff Weiner

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