By Idah Z. Pswarayi-Riddihough
Today, the world marks the International Day for the Universal Access to Information. Fittingly, we in Sri Lanka, celebrate 7 months since the Right to Information (RTI) Bill was enacted.
The product of a slow and steady reform process, RTI is a milestone in Sri Lanka’s history.
Yet how many citizens know about its benefits?
As open access to information takes international center stage today, I’m hoping Sri Lanka’s Right to Information Bill, one of the world’s most comprehensive, will get the attention it deserves.
There is indeed much to celebrate.
Civil society organizations and private citizens are putting Sri Lanka’s RTI to the test. Diverse requests have been filed, from questions relating to how investments are made for the Employees’ Provident Fund (EPF) to how soil and sand mining permits have been allotted in districts like Gampaha.
Interestingly, people living in rural areas are more aware — and vocal — of their rights to know than people in urban areas.
The government is making steady progress. In the last six months, more than 3,000 information officers have been recruited. An independent RTI Commission enforces compliance and acts on those who do not follow the law. If, for example, an information officer refuses to release information pertaining to a citizen’s life, they must provide a valid reason or face legal penalties.
In the next few years, the Sri Lankan bureaucracy faces the huge task of revamping its record management, including its land registration system. This reform is an opportunity to live up to RTI’s ambitions of open governance and help citizens access land title information and records that give them a legal title to their property.
For many citizens, acquiring or passing a piece of land to one’s children remains a complex procedure. Grievances vary from registering land for business or residential purpose to claiming ownership. Bribes to local government to expedite (illegal) construction or retrieve title deeds of land are allegedly all too common.
From my many conversations with Sri Lankans – or what I overheard in the office or public transportation— I noticed that one of the things people complain most about is land administration.
And rightfully so. It currently takes 9 steps and 51 days to register a property. And while the government aims to reduce the process to an ambitious 2 steps and 5 days, this is still a far cry from a modern and transparent land administration system.
In the spirit of openness expressed in RTI, a critical decision will be to digitize land administration to make the process simpler and more accountable to citizens.
I recently attended a two-day workshop where all agencies involved in land administration came together to understand how they can better address the bottlenecks that so many Sri Lankans experience.
The meeting, attended by the Minister and Secretary of the Ministry of Lands and Parliamentary Reforms and the Surveyor General focused on policies that need to be formulated to establish a user-centric and effective land administration system within a reasonable timeframe in Sri Lanka. Fixing the system will resolve one of the largest drawbacks to improving the country’s Doing Business ranking.
Having these systems in place would support the implementation of the RTI as these would be proactive measures to help citizens access information in a timely manner and would also help the government officials to do their job better.
As we celebrate #AccessToInfoDay, I encourage you to engage and let us know your experience practicing your right to know.
(Idah Pswarayi-Riddihough is the World Bank’s Country Director for Sri Lanka and the Maldives in the South Asia Region. She earned her PHD from Oxford University in 1993.)