Friday, June 1, 2012

Do We Need An RTI Act?

-->The 2-days seminar/workshop on RTI Awareness organized by the Department of Information & Media, Ministry of Information and Communications concluded yesterday. I participated in the seminar not so much because I needed to know more than what I already knew about the benefits of RTI Act. I did so because it presented me with an opportunity, a platform, to make a statement - without any ambiguity - that Bhutan is not ready for the RTI Act.

The gaggle of notable speakers from around the world had one common message: that Bhutan is in absolute dire need of an RTI Act and, in their view, we need it TO-DAY, not tomorrow.

Let me assure you that the lineup of speakers at the seminar was impressive - each of them were articulate, well spoken, fluent and very knowledgeable. I was thoroughly impressed by the vastness of their experiences. I know too that they were very sincere in their good intentions for Bhutan. They truly believed that they had a very important message for us.

All that is fine, except that there is one minor detail we must not forget: the fact that all of them come from cultures that are vastly different from our own. The maturity of our democracies is at two opposite ends of the pole. The realities that exist in their countries are different from those that exist in ours. And, MOST IMPORTANTLY, we do not share a common history; a history that most often direct and shape our future.

They come from countries that have long and painful history of colonization, of deprivation, of subjugation, corrupt politicians and failed governments. That is why, during the course of the debate, I asked them a simple question:

How are their experiences relevant to us?

We are a nation of less than 700,000 people. There are hardly any secrets in Bhutan. In fact, because of our compactness, transparency is a national embarrassment.

Our Constitution already guarantees us our right to information. What additional rights or freedom can an RTI Act offer us?

Persistently, the panelists collectively insisted that the RTI Act is most often the result of DEMAND FOR INFORMATION. I pointed out that if that were true, as far as Bhutan was concerned, there is only one, repeat, only one recorded history of demand for information - that of Hon’ble National Council Member, Mr. Sangay Khandu. Can a law be considered for enactment based on one solitary demand? Ofcourse, there were a few articles written by the media extolling the virtues of the RTI Act. But the media’s demand for RTI Act is inconsequential since every one of us know that their interest in it constitute a very serious conflict of interest.

One other question I asked the panelists at the seminar was this: why did a great country like India with a few million brilliant minds take 56 years to enact their RTI Act – from the time they got their Constitution? One of the Indian speakers put the blame squarely on their politicians. That was very unfair. On the contrary, my view was that the Indian people were very wise because of which they gave themselves that many years to understand the issues involved, engage the public to debate on it, deliberate on each of the clauses of the proposed Act, understand their implications, so that, when finally they enact it, they have a well thought out and enforceable law that would benefit the common people.

I am not suggesting that Bhutan take 56 years to enact an RTI Act. But certainly, we can allow ourselves few years to work on it, allow our democracy to mature, our people to understand their responsibilities that come with the freedom that they have been given under the democratic system.

I also opined that it was simple to enact a law but very, very difficult to enforce it. I suggested that Bhutan must first work towards creating the enabling conditions in order that the delivery and application of the RTI becomes possible. Given the poor state of our record keeping and the level of ICT knowledge and implementation, enforcing the Act will be near impossible, regardless of our lawmakers’ very best intentions.

I pointed out to the resource persons that out of the 241 countries, only 86 countries enacted RTI Act, as of 2008. More than 60% of the countries did not adopt the law. Why? By the way, one among those counties that does not yet have an RTI Act in place is: Singapore. And we know that Singapore is one of the world’s most dynamic countries.

As I mentioned at the beginning, the experts believe that we need the law NOW. I disagree with them totally. We are not ready for it now. Every educated individual is in no doubt of the empowerment the RTI Act will give the common man. However, its relevance and usefulness is a matter of timing. We need to understand the mindset of the people who will be seeking the information and those of the present set of people who are holding the information. Will the giver give willingly? Will the seeker seek responsibly?

In conclusion, it is my view that the experts’ need for haste is driven by their paranoia and a dread of their own past. Bhutanese people have no such baggage.

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