From Request to Right to Information

The initiative of the new government to introduce the long awaited Right to Information Bill in the first session of Parliament will be another important step forward for Bhutanese democracy.

The government of the day must of course be appreciated for such a move and for keeping one of its key election pledges to the people.

Though RTI has been long discussed in the public forum there is still a lot more to be learnt and understood about RTI given the young age of our Bhutanese democracy.

In the absence of any strong RTI, Transparency or Anti Corruption Civil Society Organizations the RTI found itself a likely champion in the media. While the media’s support gave the legislation much publicity RTI mistakenly got associated as a media related legislation linked to the difficulties of journalists in getting information.

The RTI as will be visible from the draft bill is essentially a legislation which empowers ordinary citizens with the legal right to seek information that pertains to them or their society.

The sharing of information promotes good governance, curbs corruption, improves transparency and makes agencies and officials accountable.

One of the biggest challenges in governance is that the government does not really know how its services are being delivered at the grass root level and the people on the other hand don’t really know what they are getting. This is because all the information is cloaked in a veil of secrecy between procurement officers, Gups, contractors and others.

Often by the time people find out that their road or bridge could have been much better, it is too late. Even after that given the lack of transparency over everything from the budget spent to quality of work, nobody is held accountable.

RTI can help people to overcome this oldest challenge in governance, and actually find out what is happening around them and accordingly demand better services and accountability. The government itself will be made aware of issues by the people.

Corruption, be it policy or even personal, happens under the cover of secrecy where only a few people hold privileged information and services. RTI can short circuit this to large extent as people can demand for information, which is no longer the exclusive purview of a few. For example, a villager can file an RTI application and ask his Gup to provide the budget and procurement details for an ongoing irrigation project. The reason why ACC and RAA are so feared and effective is simply because they have the power to demand information. Now imagine every citizen being given this power? Corruption whose truly ugly nature is more visible among the weakest sections will be considerably reduced.

Very often the information that comes out in the media is only the tip of the iceberg because either the information is not shared or the minute details cannot be pointed out.

However, a community or an individual can seek the relevant information and accordingly make informed decisions.

It is well known that information is power, and many institutions that control and regulate our lives on a daily basis from something as vital as an annual security clearance to a driver’s license has to do with the holding and processing of that information. RTI, therefore, puts the ordinary citizen in a position to seek and legally demand this information.

An important feature of RTI is that it puts the onus of making information public on the agencies themselves. For example, during the previous government though the overall budget report was made available the detailed break up expenditure wise, agency wise, dzongkhag wise and gewog wise was not made available to an unknowing public. Under RTI all of this will have to be made public by the Finance Ministry.

While the draft Bill has been introduced the next step for the government will be to incorporate the suggestions from ordinary citizens and pass it in parliament to make it a strong and effective legislation.

After that the government will have to ensure that it is implemented in the right spirit with adequate resources, public sensitization and follow up support.

The successful passage of RTI and its proper implementation will enhance the quality of Bhutanese democracy and further empower Bhutanese citizens. The government of the day, in due time, will also reap its dividends.

A popular government without popular information or the means of acquiring it is but a prologue to a farce, or a tragedy, or perhaps both.

James Madison

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