The Budget vote for independent commissions in Parliament earlier this month has led to Sri Lanka’s new Right to Information (RTI) Commission finally getting its own fund to the relief of the anxious people who have been ceaselessly bombarding the Commission with information requests. The RTI Act required the Fund to be in place at [...]


A matter of ‘commissions’ and omissions


The Budget vote for independent commissions in Parliament earlier this month has led to Sri Lanka’s new Right to Information (RTI) Commission finally getting its own fund to the relief of the anxious people who have been ceaselessly bombarding the Commission with information requests.
The RTI Act required the Fund to be in place at the outset. But that was not to be. The Commission faced a difficult year of being crippled by bureaucrats in accessing basic allocations needed for its operationalisation.

That the Commission gamely took on the challenge despite temporary premises and minimum staff is commendable. It has released information on the admission of children to national schools, exposed ‘missing’ Commission of Inquiry (COI) reports and released other COI reports, directed the Army to release information on court-martial proceedings as well as ordered the release of alleged government corruption from the North to the South including unauthorised building permissions and environmental impact assessments.

So if any believed that posing financial difficulties will impede RTI, they thought wrong. The public demand was too strong. But the Commission may have a year’s worth of a backlog of appeals and other work to catch up on now. That is wholly due to the Government’s tardiness in failing to provide independent financial resources at the outset even though ruling politicians congratulated themselves for enacting a globally acclaimed RTI Act during the Budget vote.

In fact, the explanation that a separate budget allocation for the Commission had not been included in 2017 because it had not formally come into being when the budget was drafted in 2016 is at odds with the fact that the RTI Commission had already been established by October 1, 2016. This bungling must be attributed to bureaucratic inefficiency, if the kinder explanation is preferred. After all, an allocation for the Office of Missing Persons (OMP) has been included in the 2018 draft Budget even though not a single member has been appointed to the OMP as yet!

That being said, the Parliamentary debates during the vote indicate the tensions in the process. JVP frontliner Sunil Handunnetti, Chairman of the Committee on Public Enterprises (COPE), did not mince his words when he accused the Government of trying to ‘paralyse’ the independent commissions on police, elections and procurement. He protested that a 21-member Audit Commission has had to idle as the draft Audit Act had not yet been passed even though it expends rupees two million each month for its maintenance. The Bribery and Corruption Commission has also been criticised even though the anti-corruption process is being stonewalled by politicians themselves.

Meanwhile, the commissions too have their own complaints apart from lack of financial resources. A clearly frustrated Election Commission has been forced to counter public flak for the postponement of local government and provincial elections even though these unpopular decisions were made elsewhere. And the Human Rights Commission has repeatedly pointed out that draft laws are not sent to it for scrutiny even though its Act strictly mandates that!

The ‘democratic experiment’ with independent commissions meant to stay the hands of unruly politicians abusing the Rule of Law dates to a decade and a half ago. These commissions must not be covertly and fatally undermined by politicians or bureaucrats to be rubber stamps for the political establishment, as was once the case. The value of checks and balances by independent institutions must be preserved. Notwithstanding flaws in the system, we see progress in that regard.

The Constitutional Council very recently made its mark by rejecting two patently bad nominations by the President to the superior courts. That development can only be to the good of Sri Lanka.

Nature takes its course

After the deluge earlier this week, tourists both local and foreign began flocking to Yala National Park in the south. Three cheers to the Prime Minister who had to step in — and put his foot down, on the vehicular traffic that was detrimental to the wildlife in the park.

Like almost everywhere else, a ‘mafia’ with political patronage has taken control of the safari tours inside the park which at times looks like the Dehiwela or Rajagiriya junctions at peak hour.

The country’s next best Wilpattu National Park which re-opened after the decades long northern insurgency is facing a human invasion of a different kind, also related to politics. There, it is a case of human habitation encroaching on what was once the domain of wildlife. Deforestation is going on at rapid pace in the area despite a Presidential decree to halt it.

This felling of trees is not only happening inside the park boundaries, but to the north of it. Resettlements, new roads, places of worship are all taking shape with appeals not only to the President as Minister of Environment, but even to the Vatican to safeguard ‘God’s creation’. The Department of Wildlife is besieged by political pressure.

Floods and droughts — and landslides — throughout Sri Lanka as we witnessed this week are partly due to the island’s forest cover being down to 22 per cent. With a growing population of both humans and animals, and fixed land mass, the delicate balance between nature and the human-animal conflict — environmental circles call it the Balance of Power — requires a high degree of political astuteness, and firmness.

The PM’s intervention at Yala, and the President’s at Wilpattu, are a sine quo non for the Government’s economic plan for the future, Vision 2025, and beyond. Climate change and global warming are bad enough phenomena; the ice glaciers in Greenland are melting faster than thought and they say raising sea levels alarmingly. Man-made crises must not aggravate a bad enough situation.

Animals and trees have no votes, but as everyone knows, nature has its own way of being heard.

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