Sri Lanka’s New Right-to-Information Law Could Save Lives
By Binaifer Nowrojee
It should have been a day for sweetmeats and celebration. Every spring on April 14, festivals across Sri Lanka mark the arrival of the Sinhala and Tamil New Year. This year, though, families found themselves mourning dead relatives.
As residents of Sri Lanka’s capital, Colombo, prepared for the festivities, the 90 meter crest of a 22-acre trash mountain collapsed, sending tons of waste sweeping across the Meethotamulla district. Thirty-two people were crushed to death in their homes by the garbage. Around 146 houses were damaged, affecting more than a thousand people. Eight of the victims are still missing today, presumed lost in the stinking garbage.
Man-made tragedies used to get swept under the rug in Sri Lanka. Indeed, critics have already accused the one-man official inquiry into Meethotamulla of trying to whitewash government decisions to dump there despite safety warnings.
But the introduction of a simple procedural law in August last year is changing the face of Sri Lankan democracy. The Right to Information (RTI) Act has enabled journalists and citizens to access official correspondence and records that would once have been kept shrouded in secrecy.
It has turned upside down traditional South Asian deference to political elites and is helping to usher in a new era where officials are held to account for their actions. “In Sri Lanka, we tend to view politicians as strong, powerful, and above us, [as if] they need to be treated with respect rather than as agents exercising the powers we have given them,” says Sankhitha Gunaratne of Transparency International Sri Lanka. “So RTI resets the scene a little bit and transfers power back.”
Transparency International was one of the key actors persuading the government to introduce the legislation, working with a wide range of charitable organizations and lawmakers to provide practical input on how best to shape it, based on international best practice. Now that the act has been passed by parliament, Transparency International is simultaneously running an awareness-raising campaign and training activists and journalists on how to use the new law to compel the government to release information.
Meethotamulla is just one of dozens of cases where RTI has been used to throw a spotlight on government malpractice. Last month, for example, a citizen journalism website named Groundviews published a damning investigation into the incident. They revealed correspondence between two local authority branches appearing to show that the Colombo Municipal Council had begun dumping waste on 19 acres of land without permission and without conducting an assessment of the environmental impact.
A letter from Sri Lanka’s Urban Development Authority instructing the council to cease dumping and remove the waste apparently went unheeded for months before the mountain of waste finally came crashing down, killing and maiming dozens of people. “The accusation is that there was inaction because people were profiting out of that garbage dump,” says Gunaratne. “RTI is proving a useful tool to take that kind of corruption on.”
Although the official investigation is still ongoing, Groundviews’s revelations have brought public pressure on the government to bring to justice those responsible for allowing the disaster to happen.
For the victims of Meethotamulla, the newfound ability to assign blame may bring scant relief. But for government officials across the country, the knowledge that their activities may be exposed at any moment should encourage them to clean up their act. Meethotamulla is not the only garbage mountain in Sri Lanka, but it should be the last.
Transparency International Sri Lanka is a grantee of the Open Society Foundations.