The two day awareness seminar for Right to Information (RTI) in capital saw experts from India, Bangladesh, USA and the World Bank advising 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). Two researchers from Columbia University pointed out that some of the happiest and most transparent ranked countries in the world have RTI.
The experts pointed out that RTI is important as a democracy requires informed citizenry and transparency to hold the government’s accountable and fight corruption. They also said that RTI becomes a means of ensuring public participation in governance.
Concerns expressed by some Bhutanese officials and participants hinged mainly around if Bhutan was ready, if it was expensive, what about sensitive information and was it really needed.
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.
Indian experts stated that there isn’t any additional expenditure while framing the RTI. They are part of established department or an additional responsibility to the officials
The Chairperson of National Commission on Minorities of India and former Chief Information Commissioner, Wajahat Habibullah said that information that concerns the security, sovereignty, economic security, are some of the 10 categories of information which are not accessible to people.
“I don’t think that RTI would lead to the apprehension that the offices would be flooded with applicants including the media demanding to have immediate information that they possess,” said Wajahat Habibullah.
He added that one should be afraid unless there is ‘dark secrets kept in your closet or skeletons to be exposed”.
Minister for Information and Communications, Lyonpo Nandalal Rai committed the government’s support to RTI. The MoIC Secretary Dasho Kinely Dorji said that after the awareness session, the ministry would have a draft RTI Bill ready by August which would be circulated to various stakeholders and the public for comments. He said that information sharing systems have to be put in place and people have to be trained.
“Passing the bill will be the easy part but the main challenge will be in implementing it,” said the secretary.
“Democracy is all about people’s participation which would further lead to transparency and achieve GNH,”said Shamsul Bari from Bangladesh. He said that in previous years Bangladeshi people hesitated to ask information from government officials but now they can come forward due to RTI brining about a big and positive change in the governance.
The Specialist for Public Sector Management at World Bank, Vikram Chand also stressed that RTI is not only about access to information but a very important component of good governance.
Chief Information Commissioner of India, Satyananda Mishra said in the overall scheme RTI would benefit Bhutan but it was up to Bhutan when to have RTI.
The Chairperson of National Commission on Minorities of India and former Chief Information Commissioner, Wajahat Habibullah said that RTI in India is used to fight corruption at all levels.
“It is due to RTI law that women in Delhi could ask for the information on sanctioning of the construction work in slums for better living,” said Wajahat.
“Electing the government is essential in the democracy so is the RTI. It makes every citizen an element of that democracy not only their representative,” said Wajahat Habibullah.
He said that RTI calls for records being organized in such a manner that information can be accessible with the result that the records are not only easily accessible to the public but also to people within the government.
“The RTI law has helped in tracing out the past records and leading to efficiency within the government,” said Wajahat Habibullah.
He 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 Founder and former convener of National Campaign for People in RTI Shekhar Singh, highlighting the strength in fighting corruption said “Poorer people in India use the RTI law since they cannot afford to pay bribes.”
Shekhar’s study showed that 50% of the people who filed RTI applications in India found that their problem was solved even before they were given the information. He said that 30% rural applicants and 13% urban applicants were from the below Poverty level.
Thousands of Public information officers across India were interviewed about how the RTI made a difference. 20% of rural officers and 45% of urban officers said the changes have been made in the functioning of their offices because of RTI. 60% of the people said the record management had improved while some also said that decision making had improved.
“It will benefit civil servants who are hardworking and sincere, while the corrupt and apathetic will lose,” said Shekhar Singh.
“India was about to lose its democracy since people’s participation was so less but it was the RTI that could strengthen democracy by making people participate in it, “added Shekhar.