Right to information: Towards openness

No information is no knowledge, no process of upgrading the life. We must is not that aloof if we don’t think about our access to right to information right now. This is the proper time to pass a law on Right To Information (RTI). But right to information is not the need we always feel about. Though we are discussing it but to what extent can we make it a part of our life? The is not only to get access to information, but to the knowledge level of it what to know what to want?

Right to information will ensure empowerment, reduce level of corruption, provide specific direction to the mass that lives under marginal income. The marginal people do not even assess the importance of RTI. A land victim of a small village always gets stuck in a whirlwind of litigation. That person needs an information centre in his village to know where to go for succour. He does not need to come to the city if he is aware that every Thana has a govt. fund to help those who need to file a case to save his right on his own land. Even most of the urban citizens do not know that every upazila hospital has a special ward for emergency abused victims. An illiterate person definitely would believe the ‘fatwah’ rituals because he does not know that a family court is there to facilitate him in getting justice in household problems. A divorced woman should know the platform to start her resistance. To stop the dowry system, to enhance self-education, to be informed about judiciary and legislation, to provide knowledge about agriculture and health, to make all the sections of the society appear as a team no better tool can be those than information. All the laws have their loopholes. Naturally RTI law may not be an exception. But we need a law to ensure our right. What we deserve is person to person as well as institutional level openness. Professional and corporate bodies should abide by this RTI law along with the govt. ministries.

We are a village-based nation. So we should start our march from there. A look around will give a clear view. The people of different small villages have been bound to undergo many troubles like imprisonment, eviction etc due to land problems. Lack of consciousness makes them handicapped. Either they become the target of influential officials, landlords or they blame their ill fate to be penniless. But if it was informed that government was there to make their condition stable then it could have been a different experience. Most of the village people don’t know that there is a fund supervised by the district judge to support the people who need to file a case to save their neck. Of course, to ask for the fund one has to maintain some criteria. Unfortunately the communication gap does not give them a chance to knock the door. Instead of it, the fund goes back to the relevant ministry without giving support to anyone.

To make the facilities more accessible, the information should be propagated widely. In case of agricultural loan lack of knowledge gives the middle person advantage. The landless people don’t know where to go? So they trust the officials which turns into frustration when the loan taken multiplies three times over time. No evidence, no education and no information places them in such a situation when there is no u-turn. If someone wishes to buy a piece of land he has to go through many hazardous levels. Though transparency is mandatory but it’s missing somehow for the sake of confidentiality. Sometimes a land changes its owner without informing the original one. In some cases poor peasant does not know when and how his piece of land had been acquired by govt.

Every level has a system of terrorism including a village ‘hat’. The toll or tax rises high if the buyer is rich. The seller is bound to pay toll to get a place in the hat and after selling a product also; 2/3 persons will be there to collect the toll who are not bound to show the reason of percentage demanded. Then think about a marginal farmer who needs financial support for seeds. Who will give him a loan? How will he get it? The circle of commission agents will trap him for sure. By hook or by crook these poor people have to surrender to the practice. The right to information could have put a stop to the middlemen. RTI can reduce the proportion of loan and false usury too. ‘Fatwah’, abuse, acid throwing and dowry any kind of women related problems end without providing justice and leave no option but suicide for the victim. The victims or families cannot gather adequate reports to encounter for justice. Non-supportive attitude of the law enforcing team makes a boundary around the victim. Sometimes help cannot be provided in remote areas. Inadequate knowledge about rituals, religion, customs force them to go through humiliation .Limited education confine them to Imams, Upazila Chairman or Samajpradhan (head of the society).The divorced women have to face many kinds of embarrassment in the name of religion. The acid victims can’t get the emergency treatment for not knowing the existence of a special ward in sadar hospital.

Every child needs to have birth registration for education, job, land registration, marriage, passport, driving license etc through his/her life. A few parents know it. The condition of the health sector is simply indescribable. When the urban people are shaken by the physicians then it’s quite impossible for a poor person to ask that what medicine is he given to and why? There is no liability of answering. This silence, wrong medicine, unnecessary operation often create panic for many. We share the same kind of experience in case of school too. The parents have no access to know the educational plan or if the school is maintaining the national curriculum or not. Parents even don’t know if their kids have any option to change the track or just to follow the given one. There is no option to ask and getting answer about the big amount, which has to be paid in admission process. Where does it go? The parents pay the tuition fee every month still the students have to be admitted each year in the same school! Why? The parents have the right to know.

Any kind of institution whether it’s govt. or non govt. should have a flexibility to keep and pass the information where it’s needed. RTI would ensure the empowerment and consumer right in a consumer society like ours. The influential nature of products is so normal in our daily life that we forget that there is a price chart in front of the market. The buyers have a platform to face the retailers. But the practice of ignoring these ‘minor problems’ has been established as a social culture.

The handicrafts get higher price tags while traveling from hindrance. The craftsmen, fishermen or the farmers don’t have a way to know the price of their hard work. They can’t even think of the difference in pricing for the very same product. If the farmers could have known that their vegetables start journey at 7/8 taka per kg, but end up at 20/30 taka per kg; if the stitching lady could have known that her craft earns her 200 taka but ends up at 5000/6000 taka at the out let; if the consumers could have known what makes the utility bill higher every year or what are the procedures to avoid the ghost bills, definitely they could have made their life better.

RTI is often confused with liberty of the press. Of course they both are interrelated factors. If we cannot ensure the rightness in our daily life then how come the mass media will be free enough to play its role consciously? After a tragedy the ultimate loss is not publicised for the sake of govt. secrecy. The total loss is not available to the media also. But people have the right to know the consequence of these unavoidable circumstances. They have a right to know about the national budget or tax payment. These small pieces of information which we like to ignore in everyday life makes a total knowledge gap between the general people, working group and the policy makers. It has been nearly one and a half years that civil society and some NGO like MJ and MMC and the journalist union along with other organisations are trying to create awareness regarding this issue. But it’s not an effort an organisation or a social group to undertake; the need is for the whole society, so the effort should be everyone’s.

It is inevitably true that in a poor country where 80% people live from hand to mouth establishing human right is a romantic thought, RTI awareness forming there is like a sweet dream to fulfil. It’s really tuff to make the mass conscious abut RTI. But still we have to try. If our neighbour can do it, why can’t we?

Mahmuda Akhter

 

The author is Lecturer, Journalism and Media Studies Dept. Stamford University Bangladesh.

Courtesy: The Daily Star, March 31, 2007

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