Kasturi’s Progress: 1933 – 2017

W D K (Kasturiratne) Gunawardene as a young man (left) and at 80

Kasturi was born in another century in what now feels like an entirely different country. It was called Ceylon, a British colony, and the year was 1933.

Kasturi’s was a very ordinary life, which was mostly dedicated to education. But it was punctuated at various points by key events of his country and people. Tracing his life thus offers us some glimpses of his nation’s turbulent times.

At age two, he survived malaria during the major epidemic of 1933-35 which killed as estimated 80,000 to 100,000 Lankans. (He lived to see malaria being eradicated from Sri Lanka by 2016.)

At nine, he saw the Japanese air raid of Colombo and suburbs (1942), and lived through the various rations, restrictions and disruptions of World War II.

At 15, as a schoolboy he walked to Colombo’s Torrington square to personally bear witness to Ceylon becoming independent (1948). The following day, he wrote the best essay in class in which he outlined high hopes and dreams for his now self-governing nation.

At 20, he entered the University of Ceylon and was among the first students to experience the newly established Peradeniya campus where he studied history and Sinhala language. From the scenic hills, he would see the political transformation of 1956, as well as the cultural revival heralded by Maname (landmark Sinhala drama) and Rekava (landmark Sinhala movie).

At 25, as a fresh graduate entering the world, he witnessed the 1958 ethnic riots that foreshadowed the Sinhala-Tamil ethnic conflict that consumed his nation for the next half century. Among much else, it evaporated young Kasturi’s dreams of an inter-racial marriage.

At 50, as a teacher and father, he saw the far worse anti-Tamil pogrom of 1983. For the next quarter century, he would watch in horror — and guilt — as his generation’s collective blunders consumed the next generation’s future.

At 76, as a senior citizen still active in social work and literacy circles, he saw Sri Lanka’s civil war being ended brutally (2009). He had the audacity to hope once more, even if only cautiously. And yet again, his and many others’ hopes were dashed as political opportunism and corruption soon trumped over true healing and nation building. The nation was polarised beyond recognition.

At 82, he voted for a common opposition candidate (January 2015) and for political parties (Aug 2015) who pledged good governance (yaha-palanaya). That was his last public gesture, after having voted at all national elections during his time, and having spent 25 years as a public servant. He played by all the rules, but was let down by the system.

At 84, as he coped with a corroding cancer, Kasturi watched in dismay the much-touted promise of yaha-palana being squandered and betrayed. On 13 September 2017, he departed as a deeply disappointed man who remained highly apologetic for many wrong-turns taken by his generation.

Kasturi isn’t a figment of my imagination. Neither is he a composite character. Until yesterday, Kasturi was all too real. He was my father, whom we returned to the Earth today at a simple funeral. – Nalaka Gunawardene

Note: An earlier, and longer version of this was published in May 2014, and can be accessed at: http://groundviews.org/2014/05/07/kasturis-progress/

 

Nalaka Gunawardene (left) and his father Kasturiratne Gunawardene on the latter’s 83rd birthday, on 5 February 2016

Advertisements

[op-ed] Sri Lanka’s RTI Law: Will the Government ‘Walk the Talk’?

First published in International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) South Asia blog on 3 March 2017.

Sri Lanka’s RTI Law: Will the Government ‘Walk the Talk’?

by Nalaka Gunawardene

Taking stock of the first month of implementation of Sri Lanka's Right to Information (RTI) law - by Nalaka Gunawardene

Taking stock of the first month of implementation of Sri Lanka’s Right to Information (RTI) law – by Nalaka Gunawardene

Sri Lanka’s new Right to Information (RTI) Law, adopted through a rare Parliamentary consensus in June 2016, became fully operational on 3 February 2017.

From that day, the island nation’s 21 million citizens can exercise their legal right to public information held by various layers and arms of government.

One month is too soon to know how this law is changing a society that has never been able to question their rulers – monarchs, colonials or elected governments – for 25 centuries. But early signs are encouraging.

Sri Lanka’s 22-year advocacy for RTI was led by journalists, lawyers, civil society activists and a few progressive politicians. If it wasn’t a very grassroots campaign, ordinary citizens are beginning to seize the opportunity now.

RTI can be assessed from its ‘supply side’ as well as the ‘demand side’. States are primarily responsible for supplying it, i.e. ensuring that all public authorities are prepared and able to respond to information requests. The demand side is left for citizens, who may act as individuals or in groups.

In Sri Lanka, both these sides are getting into speed, but it still is a bumpy road.

Cartoon by Gihan de Chickera, Daily Mirror

Cartoon by Gihan de Chickera, Daily Mirror

During February, we noticed uneven levels of RTI preparedness across the 52 government ministries, 82 departments, 386 state corporations and hundreds of other ‘public authorities’ covered by the RTI Act. After a six month preparatory phase, some institutions were ready to process citizen requests from Day One.  But many were still confused, and a few even turned away early applicants.

One such violator of the law was the Ministry of Health that refused to accept an RTI application for information on numbers affected by Chronic Kidney Disease and treatment being given.

Such teething problems are not surprising — turning the big ship of government takes time and effort. We can only hope that all public authorities, across central, provincial and local government, will soon be ready to deal with citizen information requests efficiently and courteously.

Some, like the independent Election Commission, have already set a standard for this by processing an early request for audited financial reports of all registered political parties for the past five years.

On the demand side, citizens from all walks of life have shown considerable enthusiasm. By late February, according to Dr Ranga Kalansooriya, Director General of the Department of Information, more than 1,500 citizen RTI requests had been received. How many of these requests will ultimately succeed, we have to wait and see.

Reports in the media and social media indicate that the early RTI requests cover a wide range of matters linked to private grievances or public interest.

Citizens are turning to RTI law for answers that have eluded them for years. One request filed by a group of women in Batticaloa sought information on loved ones who disappeared during the 26-year-long civil war, a question shared by thousands of others. A youth group is helping people in the former conflict areas of the North to ask much land is still being occupied by the military, and how much of it is state-owned and privately-owned. Everywhere, poor people want clarity on how to access various state subsidies.

Under the RTI law, public authorities can’t play hide and seek with citizens. They must provide written answers in 14 days, or seek an extension of another 21 days.

To improve their chances and avoid hassle, citizens should ask their questions as precisely as possible, and know the right public authority to lodge their requests. Civil society groups can train citizens on this, even as they file RTI requests of their own.

That too is happening, with trade unions, professional bodies and other NGOs making RTI requests in the public interest. Some of these ask inconvenient yet necessary questions, for example on key political leaders’ asset declarations, and an official assessment of the civil war’s human and property damage (done in 2013).

Politicians and officials are used to dodging such queries under various pretexts, but the right use of RTI law by determined citizens can press them to open up – or else.

President Maithripala Sirisena was irked that a civil society group wanted to see his asset declaration. His government’s willingness to obey its own law will be a litmus test for yahapalana (good governance) pledges he made to voters in 2015.

The Right to Information Commission will play a decisive role in ensuring the law’s proper implementation. “These are early days for the Commission which is still operating in an interim capacity with a skeletal staff from temporary premises,” it said in a media statement on February 10.

The real proof of RTI – also a fundamental right added to Constitution in 2015 – will be in how much citizens use it to hold government accountable and to solve their pressing problems. Watch this space.

Science writer and media researcher Nalaka Gunawardene is active on Twitter as @NalakaG. Views in this post are his own.

One by one, Sri Lanka public agencies are displaying their RTI officer details as required by law. Example: http://www.pucsl.gov.lk saved on 24 Feb 2017

One by one, Sri Lanka public agencies are displaying their RTI officer details as required by law. Example: http://www.pucsl.gov.lk saved on 24 Feb 2017