Your Right to Information. Or is it?

right to informationWith regards to the ‘Right to Information,’ the Interim Constitution of Nepal 2007 reads, “Every citizen shall have the right to demand or receive information on any matter of his or her interest or of public interest.”

So the law respects the fact that as a citizen of the country, you and I have the right to acquire information on anything that directly or indirectly affects us. But does writing something in the constitution guarantee that the thing actually gets translated into practice? Here is an example of how the reality makes fun of the law.

I am currently doing a research on the banning of new taxi registration in Bagmati Zone (in 2000) and its effects on consumers. This is where it all begins.

After talking to a few people that have major stakes in the transportation industry (people like the taxi entrepreneurs, consumer rights advocate, bureaucrats and taxi drivers), I learned that in the year 2007, the Ministry of Transport and Federation of Transport Entrepreneurs made a deal whereby it was agreed that,

1. No public vehicles would be allowed to ply the roads of Bagmati without prior consent of the federation

2. Transport fares would be revised following every revision in the petroleum product prices

3. At the end of every fiscal year, the transportation fares would be revised

(for the time being, we will not delve into the gravity of this agreement. If it is true, then this is a government backed cartel and it has huge implications in the consumers. But we will leave it at that for now)

Now, until I see the agreement for myself, I cannot rely on something that someone says and use it on my research, right? And so begins my endeavor to get my hands on the agreement. And the joke begins to unfold.

My first instinct then was to call the Ministry of Transport. So I dialed 197, the Nepal-telecom authorized and largest inquiry service provider of Nepal, to get the phone number of the Ministry. I was told, the number was 01 4211920. I go on and dial the number. They tell me it is Ministry of Labour instead. Here is what must have happened. Previously, there used to be a single ministry by the name Ministry of Labour and Transport and now, these are separate ministries. And I asked myself, shouldn’t the inquiry service have updated their database? Or rather, shouldn’t the ministry have notified the telecom itself?

So I went back to my computer and googled it out. I call up the right ministry this time, and talk about the agreement. They tell me, ‘there used to be this labor and transport ministry and now we are a separate ministry and while in the process of resettlement, some papers might have gotten here and there… so we might not have the document you are looking for. I suggest you call the department of transport management. They should have the paper…’ Again, not what I had expected to hear, but I was not very surprised that they said what they said.

Then I ring the Department of Transport Management. They tell me, ‘All gazetted officers are in India to attend some program and will be back in September only. All we are left here are a few non-gazetted officers and we do not have access to the kind of documents you are referring to. You should call back in September (after September 1).’ Now this took me by some surprise and I was beginning to get furious at these bureaucrats. I wanted some information and the constitution guarantees that I be given the information. But none of it was any help to me.

Then I thought of approaching it from the other end. I called one of these people from Federation of Transport Entrepreneurs. Again, I am told that these guys have their plenum and it will keep them busy for some time. Once again, I am told to call back sometime in September.

It is a shame that all these institutions put together cannot guide us to a single agreement that defines how we commute to our work places. Maybe the bureaucrats are not accountable enough to people. Maybe the document holds the key to unraveling a big fraud committed by the government with the federation as an accomplice and thus it is being kept from the public’s reach. Maybe, the bureaucrats are extremely busy to respond to a public’s inquiry. I will leave it at that and let the readers judge it for themselves.

However, this is not the only case where a public cannot find the right information when it asks for one to the bureaucracy or the government. Go to transport management office and ask for the process of acquiring a green number plate. Go to Nepal Oil Corporation and Ministry of Commerce and Supplies and ask for the documentation done when they decide to hike petroleum prices in Nepal. Go to the municipality, the Department of Commerce, Department of Cottage and Small Industry and the Inland Revenue Department and ask for the process of registering a Kirana Pasal (mom-and-pop store.) Nowhere will you get the complete information from a single resource person. The Citizen Charters (nagarik badapatra) will be a decade old and officers won’t value your time and effort one bit. And there goes your right to information!

Akash Shrestha

Akash Shrestha is a researcher at Samriddhi Foundation where his focus areas are investment laws, public enterprises and education.