Friday, March 31, 2017

Health Ministry deals a blow to the RTI

The Island‎‎‎‎: Sri Lanka: Friday, March 31, 2017.
Decent Lanka 2015, a civil society group, has written to the Chairman, Right to Information (RTI) Commission about denial of provision of some basic information by a Deputy Director General (DDG) of the Ministry of Health (MoH).
It released to the media a letter dated 06 March 2017 addressed to the Information Officer/ DDG (Medical Services 1) explaining how she denied the information. They also released the duly filled form, as per the provisions of the RTI Act, they furnished to the said official requesting the information on 28 February 2017.
It is obvious that what the civil society group asked for was not the sun or the moon. The goofed-off information by the Information Officer of the MoH were some basic information, perhaps, that could be readily available had the MoH keeps its records up to date. The requested information were noting but the number of doctors, in clinical and non clinical fields including the specialists serving the MoH as of 31 January 2017.
The particular DDG in question had submitted an irrelevant list of specialist positions the same day says the Decent Lanka. The civil society group had written back to her noting the irrelevance of the information provided, and re-requested the information. However, not only the DDG’s office didn’t comply with the request, but at a subsequent telephone enquiry, in the absence of DDG in her seat, the staff exhibited total ignorance about the said request, according to the complainers.
We understand this is the very office of the MoH, which was established subsequent to the RTI Act’s enactment, to deal with the subject of information dissemination. But what we see is a hands down instance of the left hand not knowing what the right is doing.
Out and out inefficiency of the MoH is well-known to the citizens of this country. Their continuing failure to make even the slightest inroads into the continuing dengue menace, leave alone its control, is a case in point. (Even in this regard, the only response known to them was shameful concealment of information. Now they keep the dengue death statistics hidden from the public for the past many years).
One category of staff or the other in the state health sector is on strike almost on a daily basis. The health authorities always fail to address their grievances miserably. The poor patients’ screams from hospital wards, corridors and OPDs are not heard by the health bureaucrats. Against such backdrop, we have come to a pass where the country is losing whatever the gains the health sector had made in the past. And it is this same backdrop that has necessitated a wider civil society engagement in matters related to the functions of the MoH.
The public needs to know information from the MoH pertaining to its functions for a number of reasons. Among these, the fact that it is the most corrupt state establishment in the country, as was once said by none other than the President of the country, is but an important one.
Apart from that its inefficiency has now grown into pathological dimensions. This again has necessitated the public’s right for enquiry about its functioning. The Health Ministry’s officials should be cognizant of the fact that their institution including their salaries are financed by the general public, and the general public has all the right to know whatever information that are of public interest.
Coming back to the RTI Act, that is one of the most looked forward to pieces of legislation to have passed in the parliament in the recent past. The importance attributed to it by all the parties representing the parliament goes without saying as it was enacted unanimously. It is saddening to note that the MoH has appointed an official who has no insight about it or doesn’t give two hoots about it to be responsible for its execution within its bounds.
The Section 23 (2) and (3) of the Right to Information Act, No. 12 of 2016, on the role of Information Officer stipulates, "Every information officer shall deal with requests for information made to the public authority of which he or she has been appointed its information officer, and render all necessary assistance to any citizen making such request to obtain the information. The Information Officer may seek the assistance of any other officer as he or she may consider necessary, for the proper discharge of the duty imposed on him under this Act, and where assistance is sought from any such officer, it shall be the duty of such officer to provide the required assistance".
These sections we reproduce here for the information of the relevant authorities of the Ministry to get the feel of their misdeed, had they not known what they were supposed to do (in the position of Information Officer).
Now that the ball is in the RTI Commission’s court, it will be interesting to see how it is going to handle this situation. Whatever its approach will be, we wish it would be in the best interest of the country’s public, and their right to know.