India's success with getting the Right to Information Act up and running came in for much praise on Wednesday at a regional workshop organised jointly by the Indian Institute of Public Administration and the World Bank-funded Governance Partnership Facility.
The workshop on ‘Towards more Open and Transparent Governance in South Asia,' first of its kind at the regional level, saw participants from Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, Bhutan and Maldives mingle with the international media and RTI experts. The Indian delegation was the star attraction, with India being seen as the natural leader of RTI in the region.
A surprise revelation at the conference was that Pakistan was ahead of India by three years in framing an RTI law. Pakistan first promulgated a freedom of information ordinance in 1997, which, however, lapsed for want of interest. In 2002, General Pervez Musharaff pushed the idea, resulting in a fresh presidential ordinance in 2002. It has since become part of the 17th Amendment to the Constitution and enjoys the status of law.
In February 2004, the Pakistan government promulgated the Freedom of Information Rules, 2004, which now applies to all public bodies.
Nepal passed the information law in 2007, followed by Bangladesh in 2009. Bhutan. Maldives and Sri Lanka have yet to pass an information law or implement any other instrument of transparency.
Talking to the media, delegates marvelled at how quickly India had adapted itself to an open information culture and lamented the comparative records of their own countries. The consensus was that there was very little RTI awareness among the common people in the region.
Sameer Hamid Dhondy of a Karachi-based advocacy group said though Pakistan had a head start on RTI, the Indian law was far more comprehensive and deserved praise for allowing access to file notings and including a penal provision to deter delay in providing information. He gave his own experience of not being able to appeal to the Wafaqi Mohtasib (ombudsman) in a case of unauthorised buildings regularised by the Sindh government.
Mr. Dhondy noted that while the Indian Act seemed to have emerged from the grass roots, which explained its wide appeal, its Pakistani counterpart was an executive initiative.