SIC’s Closure Makes RTI Redundant In J&K 

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CIC’s circuit bench needs to be established on the pattern of CAT 

MUSHTAQ Ahmad Lone from a remote Batwodder hamlet in Chadoora tehsil of district Budgam has been trying  to access information related to COVID-19 expenses. He used the Right to Information  Act (RTI) seeking information from Deputy Commissioner (DC) office Budgam. On September 2nd 2020, he sent the application via speed post, but  even after 3 months, Mushtaq hasn’t been provided the information which otherwise should have been made available proactively as per the provisions of section 4 (1) (b) of RTI Act 2005. This was not the case more than a year back. Mushtaq says that he would get the response within 30 days only. He now feels frustrated and infuriated. The Assistant Commissioner Revenue (ACR) Budgam, who is the designated PIO in the office of DC Budgam seems to have taken a pledge not to respond to any RTI applicant, says aggrieved Mushtaq. On September 19th this year Mushtaq filed one more RTI application in the same office seeking details related to money spent on the power sector in Budgam. This application was also not responded to by the office of Deputy Commissioner Budgam.

Hiding the facts 

With an aim of getting information on Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana Gramin  (PMAY-G) and Rural Sanitation under Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM) Mushtaq filed an application under RTI Act 2005 in the office of Rural Development and Panchayati Raj Department Civil Secretary Srinagar on September 1st 2020 . The PIO in the administrative department also didn’t  respond to him until Mushtaq filed 1st appeal more than 50 days back.  The appeal was also not adjudicated by the First Appellate Authority (FAA). The PIO has only now recently responded to Mushtaq by sending him a rejection letter dated October 8th 2020. The letter sent via ordinary post has been dispatched  around December 10th, but with an aim of hiding the facts, the October 8th date has been mentioned in this letter. Mushtaq’s  RTI application was rejected on the plea that he hasn’t paid RTI application fees.

“I had annexed a copy of my BPL ration card with the RTI application and I am exempted to pay the RTI application fees of Rs 10. It seems PIO who is the Deputy Secretary in Rural Development Department Civil Secretariat isn’t aware of this. He has sent the letter via ordinary post so as to hide the facts related to date of posting of the letter. They are misleading me but I will knock the doors of Central Information Commission” said Mushtaq

R&B Baramulla

This is not the case with Mushtaq only, who is a noted social activist of his area but there are dozens of such cases wherein Government officers are not responding to RTI applicants.  Sirajuddin Salam an anti -corruption crusader from Baramulla has been denied information by Executive Engineer R&B division Baramulla for the last 6 months or more. In Spite of the fact that Lt Governor’s office and Chief Engineer PWD (R&B) Kashmir directed the Executive Engineer R&B Baramulla to provide the information, the officer who is the designated PIO is adamant on not revealing the facts. Sirajudin wanted funds spent on construction of a road in the Baramulla town in Shalimar colony. Local residents allege that sub-standard material was used for this road construction early this year, but the details have not been revealed yet.

When I analyze this all, I have come to the conclusion that Government officials are not worried about RTI implementation  as the nerve center of this law in J&K was shut down post  abrogation of Article 370.  By the “nerve center” I mean the J&K State Information Commission (SIC) which was constituted under J&K RTI Act 2009. The JK SIC was shut down when J&K RTI Act 2009 was repealed.

Deprived of SIC 

After extending RTI Act 2005 to J&K, we got deprived of the State Information Commission (SIC), like many other commissions, as Union Territories (UTs) are not entitled to have a separate Information Commission. 2nd appeals under RTI Act 2005 are now filed before the Central Information Commission (CIC) New Delhi. All the pending appeals in erstwhile J&K State Information Commission (JKSIC) have been transferred to CIC New Delhi, but in the last 1 year not even a single appeal filed by me and my colleagues has been listed for hearing. This was not the case in the past.

People from far off villages have stopped using RTI. They hardly know how to file an appeal before CIC. The online procedure is very technical and ordinary people can’t do this job. Mushtaq has now filed 2nd appeal before the Central Information Commission (CIC). I am sure if Mushtaq had not been associated with Jammu & Kashmir RTI Movement, it would have been impossible for him to file 2nd appeal in CIC as the online appeal process is too technical.

Appeal disposal at SIC 

Aggrieved people in Jammu & Kashmir who were not provided a reply or were given incomplete information under RTI Act would get justice from J&K State Information Commission (SIC) within a few months only.  Under RTI Act 2009, the J&K SIC was supposed to dispose off RTI appeals within 60 to 120 days only.  Under RTI Act 2005 there is no such legal binding. It takes months and years to get justice from the Central and State Information Commissions in India.

Some months back, RTI activists in Maharashtra served a legal notice to their State Information Commission asking it to lay out a roadmap to ensure timely disposal of appeals. More than 58000 RTI appeals are pending before Maharashtra State Information Commission (MSIC) . This was not the case in J&K before 370 abrogation as the time bound disposal of RTI appeals made erstwhile J&K RTI Act 2009 more progressive than RTI Act 2005. For more than a year now, RTI Act 2005  (central law) is applicable in J&K, but as a longtime RTI campaigner, I get regular calls and messages from aggrieved information seekers who complain that Government departments are reluctant in providing information. Ironically, not even a single awareness programme has been held during the last 1 year or more by the Government for the designated officers after they were tasked to implement the new RTI law. Training could have been given through virtual mode also amid COVID 19 , but nobody has even thought about it. Under RTI Act 2005 Govt has to create awareness for the citizens, disadvantaged communities as well. Section 26 of RTI Act 2005 explains this in detail but the Government seems to be least bothered about it.

Conclusion

RTI applicants feel disillusioned in J&K post article 370 abrogation. Repealing J&K RTI Act 2009 was like a personal loss for me. I along with my colleagues had worked a lot for its enactment more than 11 years back.  Instead of getting empowered with the applicability of RTI Act 2005, information seekers , journalists, RTI campaigners and transparency activists feel they have been disempowered and demoralised as the institution of RTI has almost collapsed and crumbled in Jammu & Kashmir.  SIC’s closure has made RTI redundant and the only way out is to establish a Circuit Bench of Central Information Commission (CIC) at Srinagar and Jammu on the pattern of Central Administrative Tribunal (CAT).


The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial stance of Kashmir Observer

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Dr Raja Muzaffar Bhat

Dr Raja Muzaffar Bhat is an Acumen Fellow and Chairman Jammu & Kashmir RTI Movement. Feedback [email protected]

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