Hindrances In Way Of Central RTI Act In J&K 

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Designated officers not trained. Government Websites not being updated in spite LG’s intervention  

POST article 370 abrogation dozens of central laws were extended to Jammu & Kashmir. RTI Act 2005 is one such act which is operational in J&K with effect from October 31st 2019. The J & K Government hasn’t trained the  Public Information Officers (PIOs) and First Appellate Authorities (FAAs) designated under the Right to Information Act (RTI). Neither any workshops nor any training sessions have been for the designated Govt officers. Even when the article 370 was intact, only a handful of RTI awareness programmes were held especially between 2015 to 2018. Pertinently, there was a provision under section 23 of the erstwhile J&K RTI Act 2009  for taking up awareness and training programmes on RTI for Govt officers and citizens both.  When the PDP-BJP Government failed to act, I was forced to seek judicial intervention in 2018 by filing a PIL before the High Court of Jammu & Kashmir. It was surprising to know that only two RTI workshops had been conducted between 2015 and 2018. This was revealed by the government in a written response before the High Court. The J&K Institute of Management Public Administration & Rural Development (IMPARD), had organized these workshops in which 42 officers, mostly Public Information Officers (PIOs) and First Appellate Authorities (FAAs), were trained.

DC Rajouri’s misleading information  

A false and misleading  information was submitted by the then Deputy Commissioner, Rajouri in response to my PIL. The DC office Rajouri had sent the information before the General Administration Department (GAD) who then submitted it before J&K High Court. It was claimed that 617 RTI workshops were conducted in Rajouri for citizens between 2012 and 2018. GAD submitted these details to the High Court. When I sought the participants’ list, photos, press releases, videos and other details of the workshops by filing a separate RTI application, the DC office Rajouri said no photos, videos or official press releases were available. I submitted a counter statement before the High Court exposing the DC office Rajouri, but the PIL on J&K RTI Act 2009 became automatically infructuous after abrogation of Article 370 as the said law was also repealed.

In contrast to this, between 2011 and 2013, more than 75 RTI workshops were conducted by IMPARD, in which more than 2,500 government officers were trained. This was also revealed through a written response by the government to the High Court.

In addition to it, G R Sufi and Khurshid Ganai, former State Chief Information Commissioners, also conducted several RTI and sensitization workshops in various districts of J&K and Ladakh. The government also failed to digitise its record and make its voluntary disclosure, as mandated under the J&K RTI Act 2009. There is a similar provision in RTI Act 2005. Ganai issued at least three circulars between 2017 and 2018 to the government, but there was always a lukewarm response from public authorities.

No respect for LG’s intervention 

In spite of the Lt-Governor Manoj Sinha’s  intervention on digitization of government records and updation of websites, government officers are least bothered. This is mandated under section 4 (1) (b) of RTI Act 2005. The Commissioner Secretary GAD  issued a circular on January 21st 2021 and gave a deadline of February 18 but even that seems to have been inconsequential I had brought this matter to the notice of the L-G, Manoj Sinha, during a meeting on January 18, 2021.

The Government websites continue to be in shambles. The information on J&K RTI Act 2009 continues to be there on many official Government websites which includes the official website of Higher Education Department , Industries and Commerce Department , Pollution Control Board , Jal Shakti Department and many others.

No Training workshops  

I had never imagined that a time would come when not even two dozen officers would be trained by the government in three years. From June 18, 2018, soon after the BJP withdrew support to the PDP-lead government in J&K, we were directly ruled by the centre. Now RTI Act 2005 has been extended to J&K, creating many difficulties for us. The people of J&K and Ladakh have been deprived of a separate State Information Commission. We file our 2nd appeal before the Central Information Commission (CIC), where it takes years to get justice. We feel disempowered. I am now planning to file a fresh PIL on non-implementation of RTI Act 2005.

Isn’t it the duty of the present government to make the designated FAAs and PIOs aware of the provisions of RTI Act 2005? Those trained between 2011 and 2015 have retired or been promoted to higher posts. Who will reach out to the people, especially those living in far-off regions in J&K and Ladakh? Don’t these people have the right to access information from the government?

Has any district administration conducted any RTI awareness programmes in Kargil, Zanskar, Drass or Nubra areas of Ladakh in the last three years? Has any workshop on RTI been organised in Poonch , Kupwara or Kishtwar ? Unfortunately, the government has not even trained its designated officials in Budgam district, which is located near Srinagar. In January this year, under RTI Act 2005, I sought details about such awareness programmes/workshops in Budgam conducted between November 1, 2019 and January 2020.The designated PIO in the deputy commissioner’s office, Budgam, gave me a misleading reply. He said information is not available in the repository of his office. I didn’t ask for a 40- or 50-year-old official record ?

I don’t blame the poor PIO, but the authorities at the helm are to be blamed. Unfortunately, people are not even able to seek information from a Tehsildar or a Block Development Officer (BDO). Is this a responsive administration? 

Legal binding on Government

The government is under a legal obligation to make people aware about RTI law, plus hold training sessions for designated officers (PIOs, FAAs)  so that they have a better understanding of the RTI Act. Section 26 of RTI Act 2005 says that the government has to develop and organise educational programmes to advance the understanding of the public, in particular disadvantaged communities, as to how to exercise the rights contemplated under the RTI Act.

Section 26 of RTI Act 2005 further reads:

“Encourage public authorities to participate in the development and organisation of programmes referred to in clause (a) and to undertake such programmes themselves. Promote timely and effective dissemination of accurate information by public authorities about their activities and  train Central Public Information Officers or State Public Information Officers, as the case may be of public authorities and produce relevant training materials for use by the public authorities themselves.”

Conclusion 

By not holding RTI awareness, the government is not only defeating the institution of RTI in J&K, but depriving people of freedom of expression and speech as well. The government will have an excuse of Covid-19, but what has stopped it from having online sessions on Zoom, Skype, Google Meet, etc? If the government was sincere, hundreds of officials could have been trained through these online platforms in the last 18 months. Why can’t the Govt do it now ? Let the Administrative Secretaries , Deputy Commissioners and HoD’s be given a clear direction to hold at least 2 to 3 RTI workshops in a month for people and Govt officials both.

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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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