Cross-border learning: Public interest fundamental in democracy, says speaker

Rights campaigner shares Indian experience with Right to Information Act.

Maha Mussadaq July 26, 2013
Habibullah was of the view that right to information was an integral part of any flourishing democracy. DESIGN: SUNARA NIZAMI


In the hope of learning progressive lessons from neighbours, an exclusive discussion with Wajahat Habibullah, the chairman of India’s Commission for Minorities, was held at the Jinnah Institute on Thursday. Habibullah was speaking about the impact and lessons of the Right To Information (RTI) Act in India.

As Indo-Pak Track II series continues, Habibullah, a civil servant and author on Kashmir and human rights issues spoke extensively about the law and its implementation in India. He said the value of the RTI Act was increasing as more people were learning about it with the passage of time. He said that 40 per cent of Indians have been assisted by the access to information law and the figure keeps increasing due to the awareness of the law.

Habibullah was of the view that right to information was an integral part of any flourishing democracy. He explained how to develop the means and capacity for passing such legislation, as well as outlining the benefits to society and state from its implementation.

He said the public needs to be aware of their rights and know the process in which they can access information. “In a democracy it’s the public interest which should predominate,” he stated. He explained that in India, a person can lodge a complaint if he has been refused access to information or if his request has not been processed within 30 days or in case of failure to explain the reason for refusal. Penalty charges vary from Rs250 per day to Rs25,000, he informed, adding that access to information is a universal right, especially for the poor. “The key to the success of the law is how it is used at the grassroots level and that is where the Gram Panchayat comes in.” he said

Habibullah said although the RTI legislation in India is strong and the law is strictly implemented, one of the major problems is the attitude of government officers. He said that it is their duty to protect information and at the same time provide information to those who need it. Therefore the government servants are trained in such a manner where they disclose information without revealing information that is pertinent to maintain national security. He said the imperial structure of bureaucracy needs reforms.

Jinnah Institute Director Raza Rumi said Pakistan had made great headway by enacting RTI as a fundamental right in the 18th Amendment and at least two provinces had prepared legislative bills soon to be tabled before the local assemblies. Rumi added that Pakistan could learn from the experiences of India in implementing RTI, especially the challenges and resistance from the bureaucracy.

Speaking to The Express Tribune, Rumi said Pakistan has a long way to go in terms of achieving the constitutional goal of making the state transparent and accountable. We need to move from a conflict laden relationship to a partnership of democracy and citizens’ rights, he said.

This is the fourth round of the Distinguished Speaker series, which is part of the activities associated with the Chaophraya Dialogue, a track II diplomacy initiative undertaken by the Jinnah Institute. The series has enabled an exchange of high profile public speakers including parliamentarians, academics and policy experts between India and Pakistan.

Published in The Express Tribune, July 26th, 2013.


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