COLOMBO: Indian Emperor Ashoka was the first to conjure up and grant his subjects the Right To Information (RTI), says Indian RTI activist Venkatesh Nayak, Coordinator, Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI).
Speaking at a seminar on RTI at the Sri Lanka Press Institute here on Tuesday, Nayak said that Ashoka had inscribed on rocks all over the Indian sub-continent his government’s policies, development programs and his ideas on various social, economic and political issues, including how religions should co-exist with each other.
“He insisted that the inscriptions should be in the local language and not in a courtly language like Sanskrit. And considering the fact that few of his subjects were literate, he enjoined officials to read out the edits to people at public gatherings,” Nayak said.
However, after the fall of the Mauryan empire, people had stopped reading these edits and the Prakrits had gone out of use. One had to wait until the British Orientalist, James Prinsep (1799-1840), deciphered them centuries later, he added.
RTI in India is rated as a success globally, though it has a long way to go to merit real praise.
“5.5 million applications for information have been received so far, which compares well with 3.5 million in the US. But then, 5.5 million is only a minute fraction of the total population of 1.1 billion.”
One of the issues raised by officials in India is about the cost of providing information.
“Cost can be reduced if the government and public bodies voluntarily disclose as much as possible about themselves. In Delhi, people are allowed to inspect government records every second Saturday,” Nayak said.
Where there are no websites to go into for information, other methods of communication are used.
“In Gujarat, the outer walls of villages are used to communicate the activities of the Panchayat and the rights villagers are entitled to,” Nayak said.
While journalists do not find the RTI useful because of the delay in getting information, the downtrodden sections of society and NGOs in the development sector use it to see records relating to government departments. Political parties also use RTI to get authentic information on the government’s performance. Surprisingly, even government servants use RTI.
Contrary to the fears expressed by some officials, RTI has not harmed national security.
“If there was any breach of national security it was due to inspired leaks from officials themselves,” Nayak said.
Speaking on RTI in Bangladesh Shamsul Bari, Chairman Research Initiatives Bangladesh, said the RTI has truly empowered the marginalized. The difference between “we” the people and “they” the government, is fading, albeit slowly.
But Bangladesh has a long way to go. Only 50 percent of posts of Designated Officers have been filled. There is still fear among the people that harm will come to them if they seek information. RTI activists should educate the people to shed such fears and see RTI as their entitlement as well as a social need, Bari said.
Speaking on RTI in Pakistan’s tribal province, Khyber Pakhtunwala, MP and activist Meraj Humayun Khan said that Khyber Pakhtunwala has excelled in implementing the RTI act .It has topped the provinces in its use.
“Only the High Court is out of bounds to the RTI. Earlier the Speaker of the KP Assembly wanted the Assembly to be kept of it, but a media uproar defeated his designs,” Khan said.
“We look upon freedom as a fundamental right and are pro-active on RTI,” she added.