RTI- A Personal Experience

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J&K RTI Act, 2009 is an Act which makes you a powerful citizen. It gives voice to the voiceless and allows people to express their feelings with regard to public policy, planning and performance. The act is all about information and the informed populace. 

Why do people need Information?

Information is the most prized possession for anybody, especially in the modern era. For rural communities particularly, it becomes even more important to have information about how different government offices, schemes and planning’s work. It has been observed that the government departments do not perform up to the mark in the rural areas because of lesser transparency and accountability in the working of public authority. The people are comparatively less aware in these areas although they have tools like RTI Act and PSGA available. People aren’t aware that even a single RTI Application can change the complete behavior of arrogant officials making them quickly behave as “public servants”. Thus there is an urgent need to make people aware about the information Act so that they can benefit from it.

What is Information?

Information is defined in Section 2(d) of RTI Act as “any material in any form including records, documents, memos, e-mails, opinions, advices, press releases, circulars, orders, logbooks, contracts, reports, papers, samples, models, data material held in any electronic form and information relating to any private body which can be accessed by a public authority under any other law for the time being in force”. It means that every resident of J&K has the right to above “information”. “Right to information” is also defined in the definitions clause as the right to inspection of work, documents, records, taking notes, extracts or certified copies of documents or records, taking certified samples of material, obtaining information in the form of diskettes, floppies, tapes, video cassettes or in any other electronic mode or through printouts, where such information is stored in a computer or in any other device.

Seeking information and blackmailing:

People should make use of this act as much as possible to bring a sense of real public service among government officials and to inculcate the culture of transparency and accountability. Seeking information is our right but unfortunately, it is termed by some people as “blackmailing”. This is because when somebody files an RTI Application, the corrupt officials may offer them something in return if he or she withdraws the application. But if the applicant withdraws the application, it is termed as blackmail and a corrupt official walks away free. Such blackmailers must be exposed and the corrupt officials must be punished. How can an official get blackmailed if he follows Section 4 and 7 and provides the information to the public? It is their duty as per the RTI Act. 

Another scenario is where the RTI applicant does not withdraw the application but he or she may then be harassed physically or mentally or may be provided information. One has to be ready for all these consequences before filing an RTI. 

Personal Experience:

Two RTI Applications were filed by Nasir Sofi and me in I&FC Department, Tangmarg on 25-03-2016, Time: 02:48pm. Out of the 9 point information sought, seven points fall under the life and liberty case, which as per Section 7 of the J&K RTI Act means that the PIO has to provide this information within 48 hours from the date of receipt of the application. We visited the office and filed the applications by hand so that it reaches sooner, being a life or liberty case. Firstly, there was no information available for the public in the said office except a board displaying the name of the office at the front of the office building. Section 4 of the Act here seems to hold no importance for the concerned PIO. Further, one can imagine the working condition of the office from the fact that the office does not put the official seal, signature, name of PIO, Designation, and Contacted. that is sought in acknowledgment of the application. All this information is also necessary for further communication with the PIO. We informed the concerned PIO about this matter but he declined to do anything in this regard. At around 4:00pm i.e. just within 2 hours, a few contractors came to my house and asked me if I wanted anything? I answered, “A flood protection bund, proper widening and excavation of Nallah Ferozpora and the 9 point information sought in my application”. After many requests to withdraw my application and my subsequent refusal, they felt helpless and left after taking a cup of tea. I got many calls during the entire night and in the morning, AEE and Patwari accompanied by some other employees called me to a lonely site. They promised everything in return for my withdrawal of the application. On the other hand, Nasir Sofi, who had filed an RTI for the first time, felt empowered and said,“Till now I have approached Patwari, Tehsildar and other Government Mulazims regarding our personal grievances but they never gave an ear to us because we didn’t know the rules, the schemes and also didn’t have the proper information. This is real empowerment and the power of accountability”. Needless to say, we refused to withdraw our application. We further got calls from other third parties and were approached in every possible waybut they failed to dissuade us and ultimately started provoking people against us. Although people trust us and we were able to manage the situation, we learnt that the PIOs can resort to anything. Contractors said that their bill payments may be stopped and tried to bribe people by saying that they would provide protection bund, but the RTI Application had to be withdrawn. We know public needs something to divert their attention from real issues. But thanks to the RTI, I was able to empower my village people just within a day. It was my first RTI for my village and it fetched far better results than I expected. The masonry bund was constructed within 3 days from the date of our application, although there was no new allotment for it. It was possible only because of the anti-corruption law i.e. RTI Act which brought transparency and made the department utilize the resources properly. 

Conclusion:

PIOs and government officials are often seen complaining about people misusing RTI. But they need to understand that it is the duty of the PIO to provide information and follow Section 4 in true spirit. Once they implement it completely, the chances of so called blackmailing will automatically be nullified. The only formula is to follow section 4 and 7 of RTI, update websites with new information regularly, stop corruption, be accountable and transparent and above all, respect the preamble of J&K RTI Act 2009. Respect law and feel relaxed. 

 

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