RTI mechanism in a deep freeze in J&K since abrogation of Article 370

Even 14 months after RTI Act, 2005, was made applicable to Jammu and Kashmir, no RTI manual has been published by the government in any of the erstwhile state’s official languages

Now, second appeals under the RTI Act 2005 are to be filed before the CIC, New Delhi, which already has a massive workload. Even after months, aggrieved appellants in J&K are not getting justice from the CIC
Now, second appeals under the RTI Act 2005 are to be filed before the CIC, New Delhi, which already has a massive workload. Even after months, aggrieved appellants in JK are not getting justice from the CIC

Raja Muzaffar Bhat

When on 28 September last year activists and right to information (RTI) campaigners all over the world were commemorating the International Day for Universal Access to Information, we, the RTI activists of Kashmir, were holding a silent protest in the heart of Srinagar city. We had nothing to “commemorate” or “celebrate”, as the Jammu and Kashmir RTI Act, 2009, had been repealed soon after Article 370 was effectively abrogated on 5 August 2019 by the Central government.

The abrogation came as a personal loss, because I, along with many other activists, had struggled to get the 2009 law enacted in Jammu and Kashmir. Despite the fact that several laws of the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir were protected, even after the abrogation, what we are unable to understand is why its progressive RTI law was repealed.

The Jammu and Kashmir State Information Commission (JKSIC) was also shut down. The commission had stopped its work soon after 5 August 2019 and on 31 October 2019 the Centrally-enacted RTI Act, 2005, was formally extended to Jammu and Kashmir.

For more than a year, government officials have been non-responsive, and this is especially true for requests made under the RTI Act, 2005. The government has also failed to undertake sensitisation workshops for designated Public Information Officers (PIOs) or First Appellate Authorities (FAAs). These officers were already familiar with the state RTI Act of 2009, but there are some differences between that repealed law and the 2005 RTI Act, which has now been applied to Jammu and Kashmir.

PIOs are taking undue advantage of the closure of the JKSIC and treat the right to information very casually, for they know they will not be taken to task. The PIOs in the Deputy Commissioner’s office at Budgam, the Jammu and Kashmir Services Selection Board, the Rural Development and Panchayati Raj Department of the Jammu and Kashmir government, the Block Development offices, the Jammu and Kashmir Housing Board at Srinagar, the Pradhan Mantri Gramin Sadak Yojana, Kashmir, and many other government offices are ignoring RTI applications, nor are officials making the voluntary disclosures of information that are mandated by section 4(1)(b) of the RTI Act, 2005.

Mushtaq Ahmad Lone, a resident of Batwodder Bonen village in Budgam district, has been trying to get information on health, power, rural housing and other public services from the Deputy Commissioner’s office at Budgam. Mushtaq alleges that Rayees Ahmad, the Assistant Commissioner, Revenue, Budgam, who is also the designated PIO, has been non-responsive to his requests.

“I filed three RTI applications before the PIO through Speed Post over the last four to five months but did not get a response. Then I appealed before Dr Nasir Ahmad, the Additional Deputy Commissioner, Budgam, who is the designated First Appellate Authority under the 2005 Act,” Mushtaq says. The ADC is a quasi-judicial officer, but seems unaware of his role, he says. “Without even informing me, the ADC forwarded my appeal to the Directorate of Health Services, Kashmir. This is totally illegal and against the RTI Act, 2005,” he adds.

Mushtaq has now filed a second appeal before the Central Information Commission (CIC) in New Delhi. “It will take a long time to get justice from the CIC, which was not the case before the abrogation of Article 370, as we had an Information Commission in Jammu and Kashmir,” Mushtaq says.

He also says that he has been getting calls from the office of the Director, Health, Srinagar, which is unaware of the provisions of the 2005 Act. “There is complete chaos and confusion among government officials. They do not want to share information and even if some would like to provide information under the Act, they have not been trained about their role and responsibility,” he said.

The Jammu and Kashmir Public Services Commission (JKPSC), despite clear directions issued to it by the JKSIC that it must provide copies of answer scripts to the aggrieved under the RTI Act, has once again started denying this information.

In a recent case, the JKPSC refused to share an answering script with information-seeker Mohammad Ramzan Khan, whose son Irfan could not qualify for the Jammu and Kashmir Civil Services exam in 2018.

Khan had sought a photocopy of his son’s anthropology answer-sheet, which the PIO denied in written communication. This goes against the orders of the Supreme Court and several orders of the CIC as well as JKSIC.

Now, second appeals under the RTI Act 2005 are to be filed before the CIC, New Delhi, which already has a massive workload. Even after months, aggrieved appellants are not getting justice from the CIC.

Now, it takes six months, a year, or even longer to have an appeal disposed of at the CIC. In the past, when appellants approached the erstwhile JKSIC in Srinagar or Jammu, their appeals were disposed-off in 60 to 120 days at most.

There was a provision that mandated this in the Jammu and Kashmir RTI Act, 2009. There is no such provision binding the CIC or the SICs in other states (under RTI Act, 2005). It is on this count that the now-repealed 2009 Act was considered a more progressive law than the Jammu and Kashmir RTI Act, 2009.

How can people living in remote areas of Jammu, Kashmir, or Ladakh approach the CIC in the Capital? Only educated and empowered people approach the CIC now, where as in the past even illiterate folk would approach the JKSIC.

To make people wait for a year or more to get information about, say, beneficiaries under the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana, MG-NREGS works, or lavatories constructed under the Swachh Bharat Mission, is unjustified.

Section 26 of the RTI Act, 2005 impresses upon the government to develop and organise educational programmes to advance the understanding of the public, in particular of disadvantaged communities, on how to exercise their rights contemplated under the RTI Act. The law also encourages public authorities to undertake awareness programmes and promote timely and effective dissemination of accurate information by public authorities about their activities.

The government is also supposed to train PIOs and produce relevant training materials. Section 26 of the RTI Act 2005 says: “The appropriate government shall, within eighteen months from the commencement of this Act, compile in its official language a guide containing such information, in an easily comprehensible form and manner, as may reasonably be required by a person who wishes to exercise any right specified in this Act.”

Yet, even 14 months after the RTI Act, 2005, was made applicable to Jammu and Kashmir, no RTI manual has been published by the government in any of the erstwhile state’s official languages, Urdu, English, Dogri, or Hindi. The government of India declared these four official languages of Jammu and Kashmir in October last year. Before this, Urdu was the official language.

In 2015, Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched the “Digital India” campaign to make government services accessible to citizens electronically. The campaign said digital infrastructure would be upgraded, internet connectivity improved and the standards of technology-enhanced. In the last nine months, people’s access to government offices, in view of the COVID-19 pandemic, has only decreased.

The pandemic was the best time to receive and respond to RTI applications electronically, but the Jammu and Kashmir government has miserably failed to create an effective digital interface for this. Ironically, 4G internet services have also not been restored after Art. 370 was abrogated.

If the rest of India can enjoy 4G internet service on mobile phones, why deny this right to the people of Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh?

The government had claimed that Article 370 was an impediment to our getting the same entitlements as people in the rest of India enjoy. Why, then, deny us high-speed internet services? The government seems not to be interested in extending the digital India campaign to Jammu and Kashmir.

It was claimed that governance mechanisms in Jammu and Kashmir would be strengthened after Article 370 was abrogated, and that government officials would be made more accountable. But our experience of how RTI is being implemented makes it seem that things are becoming complicated, unpleasant and difficult. Government officials do not want to be answerable to citizens. This is defeating not only the provisions of the RTI Act but its Preamble as well.

(IPA Service)

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