If an argument had to be made in favor of the RTI Act in Bhutan then the Ministry of Health procurement scam would be an apt example.
Due to corruption in the tendering process Bhutanese patients for years were subject to sub standard drugs and medical equipment. This was while the exchequer was being emptied of millions on many items that could not be used or were not needed.
Despite Investigative journalism and subsequent RAA and ACC investigations, the true magnitude of the scam and its impact on Bhutanese health and the exchequer may never be known. RTI can stop such scams from taking place in the future.
Apart from corruption in central agencies there is a staggering level of corruption at the local government level with poor farmers and villagers being the main victims. This is because every year apart from the government budget a huge amount of money is collected from local villagers for various purposes by Gups and Tshogpas. In many cases the accounts are never made public.
Gups also exercise indiscriminate power over villagers. There are instances of Gups threatening to remove census records or not give wood permits to villagers who ask for the accounts. Without RTI decentralization may just mean more powerful Gups and Tshogpas.
Though Bhutan would like to emulate Scandinavian countries in good governance many of these countries have moved beyond just having elections and giving free speech as indicators of democracy. Many democracies of today have realized that it is equally important to also allow citizens to participate in governing themselves and also taking accountability. RTI is important as it enables participation of citizens in a democracy.
For example a villager in a remote area filing an RTI request on the accounts of the budget for a farm road will do much more in elevating farm road quality than any amount of ACC investigation or RAA reports.
The main fear of RTI stems from the misperception that if let loose it can lead to hundreds of ordinary citizens queuing up in front of bureaucrats asking for information and not allowing them to do their jobs.
The purpose of RTI will in fact have the opposite effect as RTI makes it incumbent on government agencies to improve their record keeping and information distribution systems. So with nearly all the relevant information on the public domain like websites, media, publications etc bureaucrats may see less people turning up at their offices. Even in populated countries like India and Bangladesh RTI has made the life of bureaucrats easier as the information collection and distribution system is much easier.
There are also concerns that confidential information that can harm the states interest can be let loose. This is also a major misconception as RTI Acts across the world leaves out sensitive information like national security, intellectual property, private information and etc as falling outside the domain of RTI.
Concerns have also been expressed over the cost of RTI as being unaffordable for a huge country. However, according to regional experts RTI will cost little or nothing since all that is required is the proper collation of information which is anyhow the government’s job.
There are concerns that it is too early to have RTI in Bhutan since India waited 56 years for it. Experts say that the only reason India had to wait so long was because it did not pass it within the first five years after independence. As a result in subsequent years it became more difficult with increasing amount of information to be documented and also the strengthening of vested and powerful interest that did not want transparency and accountability.
A study conducted by various research institutes across the world has found a co-relation between happy countries and RTI. Most of the top 20 happy countries had RTI. On the other hand nearly all the bottom 30 countries the world ranked as being most intransparent and unhappy did not have RTI.
Bhutan is currently in the midst of a rupee crisis that has the potential to become a financial crisis. Joseph Stiglitz won his Nobel Prize for work that showed how secrecy and intransparency in the financial system contributed to the global financial crisis of 2008.
Ultimately the government of the day has to realize that RTI is their friend and ally. RTI will considerably help improve good governance and enhance the faith of the people in the government and in democracy.
This government as the first democratically elected government by the will of the people has a sacred duty to ensure that it puts in place all democratic institutions and tools in its first five years. The voters ultimately will judge the government not only for developmental programs but also on what freedoms and rights it has provided to empower the people.