Nikkei Asian Review: Sri Lanka: Tuesday, February 28, 2017.
Since November 2012, the students of St. Joseph's College, an all-male secondary school in Colombo, have watched a landmark tower rising over their backyard. The construction work rattled some of the classrooms closest to the Lotus Tower, as the 350 meter freestanding structure is called, and put paid to the students' former habits of scampering across the grounds behind the school to fish in a nearby lake with improvised rods.
Some of the school's alumni scoffed at the $104 million tower, funded largely by the Export-Import Bank of China and commissioned by the autocratic former Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa. They dismissed it as "another Rajapaksa vanity project," adding to widespread skepticism that the communications tower, once complete, with lotus petals and antenna, will be the tallest building in South Asia.
A stronger voice has delivered a harsher rebuke on this "prestige project", as officials describe it. In early February, Sunil Handunnetti, chairman of the Committee on Public Enterprises, an influential parliamentary body that investigates financial losses in state institutions, said the tower was a waste of money and a drain on the economy. It is among 15 state-sponsored projects that have depleted government coffers by 110 billion rupees ($733 million), through excess spending and financial irregularities, the committee's latest report revealed.
But now, Sri Lanka's Right to Information Act (RTI), a new law that came into effect on Feb. 3, holds out a promise that the public can intervene and query investments in state-backed projects while they are still on the drawing board. It is an unprecedented weapon that analysts describe as a "game changer" for transparency and accountability in Sri Lanka's political life.
This law, approved unanimously in the 225-member parliament, spares no government leader, senior bureaucrat or public institution from public scrutiny. The strength of its 43 clauses means that private companies, if they have dealings with a state body, and even non-governmental organizations can be targeted.
An independent RTI commission, formed in the wake of the law's passage, has the teeth to go after recalcitrant public officials who stonewall information queries from the public, journalists or anti-corruption activists. The law compels officials to respond within a month, or face a two-year jail term or a fine of 50,000 rupees. "That is the stick," remarked one anti-corruption campaigner.
"The public can petition the commission to inquire if the information they wanted is not forthcoming, and the commission can take the matter to court if necessary," Kishali Pinto Jayawardena, a member of the RTI commission, told the Nikkei Asian Review. "The RTI in Sri Lanka has now become a right that prevails over other rights and also prevails over every other law to the extent it is inconsistent with the RTI law."
The law made it to parliament after a nearly 20-year struggle, led by the Editors' Guild of Sri Lanka, the leading body of the country's newspaper editors. It was first conceived in 1998 as a Freedom of Information Act, and drafts were presented to government in 2003. But political turmoil and subsequent opposition from the Rajapaksa regime stymied its progress until Rajapaksa's shock defeat by Maithripala Sirisena, now president, at the January 2015 presidential polls.
Sirisena's election campaign had included a promise to pass the RTI law, which was on his government's to-do list for its first 100 days in office. "We got 90% of what we wanted in this law," said Sinha Ratnatunga, former president of the Editors' Guild. "Now we need to raise awareness and encourage the media and the public to use it."