Access To Information For Development : Karna B Nepali
People’s Movement II was instrumental in institutionalising the debate on and achievements related to the right to information. Consequently, Article 27 of the Interim Constitution, which was promulgated following the movement, enshrined the right to information as one of the people’s fundamental rights. In order to implement the constitutional provision effectively, the government enacted the Right to Information Act 2007 and also established the National Information Commission the following year to promote and implement the constitutional as well legal provisions.
The Right to Information Act - which aims at making the activities of the government and other public institutions more open and transparent, ensure that the government agencies are accountable to the people, make information held in public institutions easily accessible to citizens, protect and promote the people’s right to know, and protect sensitive information that could have an adverse impact on the interest of the nation and citizen - has also guaranteed every citizen the right to access any information of public and individual interest held in public institutions.
However, though it has been around a decade since the Act was endorsed, the level of understanding among the general public about the law and utilisation of their legal rights have not been as much as expected. Still, there is a general perception among the public that the key actors of the right to information are the media persons and the National Information Commission, which is only partially true. What is absolutely true is that the right to information is the people’s fundamental right, and the Commission works to ensure their access to information if people are denied their right guaranteed by the RTI Act. Citizens do not have to be media persons to access information held in public institutions.
As long as social issues do not get political recognition, or let’s say as long as they are not included in the political parties’ agenda, such issues continue to be suppressed and ignored. These issues, then, are just included in the form of objectives and indicators of the projects of the non-government organisations but cannot be materialised widely due to their own limitations.
Since right to information is directly associated with human rights issues, improved democratic practices and good governance, we can estimate its multiple dimensions and capacity to lead the nation towards prosperity through its effective implementation.
The concept of right to information, which first emerged as the Freedom of Press Act in Sweden in 1766, has also brought positive impacts even in the overall political context of neighbouring country, India. Our political leadership, however, is still unaware of its significance and even those who have some knowledge about it look at it with apprehension. The same applies to the national and international organisations working in Nepal to some extent.
The non-government organisations seem to have succeeded in organising, empowering and advocating for the rights of the marginalised communities. The same organisations which are not tired of abstract talks about good governance, however, have failed to launch campaigns as envisioned in the Right to Information Act. It is mainly because of the various corrupt practices in such institutions.
These organisations, which are involved in irregularities in resource distribution processes, have a family-dominated organisational structure and practise nepotism and favouritism, do not want to make public their activities and come under public scrutiny. Such organistions have not given priority to the Right to Information campaign, which ensures people’s access to information held in all institutions operating under Nepal’s constitutional and legal provisions, makes such institutions accountable to the public and requires them to release information on their activities.
This is why these organisations have not come out of their traditional comfort zone. It is also because many such organisations have a culture of not hesitating to make a mountain out of a molehill when it comes to other’s lapses but fail to see their own weaknesses.
Right to information is a relative but not an abstract concept. Its practice is related to curbing financial irregularities or vigilance as well as advocacy against policy-level corruption. Corrupt practices thrive when there is a conflict of interests between an official and the existing policies. This results in the failure to distribute state resources to the targeted communities or groups.
On the other hand, there is a growing misconception among non-governmental organisations whose projects are run in most cases with foreign donors’ funding that they cannot sustain without such external support. Consequently, even works, such as access to information and corruption control, which could be done with our own resources, have also been ignored. This scenario has promoted the decentralisation of corruption and not of economic justice and good governance.
The fact that only 20 per cent of the total development expenditure has been spent in the eight months of the current fiscal year, in a country which stands 166th in terms of per capita income in the world, is enough to reveal that public work is mired in bureaucratic red-tape and lack of unaccountability.
Instrument for development
Had people’s access to information regarding government’s policies and programmes been made binding, the current scenario would never have existed. Therefore, it is necessary for all the youths to join the campaign to advocate the right to information, taking it as an instrument for integrated development.
(Nepali is president of RTI AID International Nepal, [email protected])