Chowgacha in Jessore district has the distinction of being the first in two historic events. The farming region on the bank of River Kapatakhya is the birthplace of the Indigo Rebellion against the English colonialists. It is also known as the gateway of Bangladesh's 1971 liberation from Pakistan, as the area was the first Bangladesh territory to be liberated on November 23, weeks before our December 16 victory in the nine-month War of Liberation.
Over four decades later, Chowgacha became the first Upazila to host the country's first-ever RTI Camp aimed at making the people more aware of the 2009 law that has empowered citizens with the right to get any information they need from government organisations, NGOs and any institution that gets funds from the government and donors (local and foreign).
The five-day camp opened at Sighajhuli village (also a union) on August 22 at the premises of a secondary school named after Shaheed Mashiur Rahman, who was killed by the invading Pakistani troops during one of the several battles. The inaugural session was presided over by the Deputy Commissioner of Jessore and also attended by the Chief Information Commissioner, Secretary of Cabinet Division (Coordination and Reforms) and the UNO of Chowgacha. Management and Resources Development Initiative (MRDI) organised the camp in support with Manusher Jonno Foundation (MJF) and JANAK, a voluntary organisation of local citizens who inform villagers about RTI and its role in ensuring citizens' welfare and improving their lives.
Speakers at the function had a common message: effective use of RTI Act will strengthen the practice of democracy at all levels of society by ensuring accountability of the authorities to citizens and making their activities transparent that, at the end, reduces(or ends) corruption. RTI is a tool that citizens can use to get information held by government agencies and NGOs that affect their lives. Citizens have many things to know from the government agencies and NGOs. They are entitled to know why doctors at government hospitals are not regular in their duty; why a helpless widow doesn't get the benefits she is supposed to receive under the government's social safety network; what is the procedure that the managing committee of a school (that gets government funds) follows in the appointment of a head teacher and why a road broke down only months after it was built; where is the list of the vested property in the Upazila? Genuine questions that ideally require simple answers. But answers are not always available. There are officials who are either too afraid to provide information to the people or avoid giving it to hide corruption or irregularities. Some do it in abuse of their authority.
What is encouraging to note is that this time the government has come forward to break the culture of secrecy. That's why the RTI law has a provision of pro-active disclosure. This means government organisations and NGOs are required by the law to disclose information (except those barred by the law) on their own initiative instead of waiting for citizens to ask for them. Most importantly, RTI has provided citizens with the right to make the authorities accountable to them about the issues that affect their lives. In the process, there are two sides: the supply side where sit the government and NGOs, and the demand side which comprises the public.
At the camp, Md. Nazrul Islam, Secretary of Cabinet Division (Coordination and Reforms), remarked that the supply is ready to meet the demand of citizens through the appointment of 22,000 designated officers who are tasked to deal with information-seeking citizens. It's now time to make the citizens aware of their rights and motivate them to seek the information and to ensure that authorities don't avoid disclosing information.
“RTI is a fulfillment of one of the commitments of the government,” said Information Commissioner Nepal Chandra Sarker. There are, he added, three aspects of the law: pro-active disclosure, information received through petition and restrictions on giving certain information related to national security and relations with friendly countries.
In summing up the theme of the law, Chief Information Commissioner Mohammed Farooq says, “RTI is a means to ensure good governance.”
What does good governance mean? It means rule of law, a transparent and accountable administration and a corruption-free society where taxpayers' money is spent fairly for the welfare of the people.
During the camp, 30 underprivileged people - day labourers, landless peasants, poor students - were first told how the use of RTI can change their lives for the better. In the next step, they were taught how to seek information from the authorities and what to do if the information is denied. This was done in an innovative and creative way through the use of music, games, videos and posters so the lessons became more attractive and easier to learn.
An immediate impact of the camp has been the submission of 38 petitions to various government offices, including the UNO, and some NGOs. The petitions have all been related to public services. One applicant, for example, wanted to get a list of a vested property in the Upazila from the land office, and wanted to know how it was distributed and who the recipients were. Another applicant wanted to know the amount of seeds the Upazila's agriculture office received last year and how they were distributed.
According to Hamidul Islam Hillol, a Senior Programme Officer, RTI has become a household word for the people of Chowgacha, thanks to the camp, which, says Hasibur Rahman, MRDI's executive director, is one of many all around the country.
The writer is former Bureau Chief, AP Bangladesh and CEO of INFOCUS.