Forlorn Stack: RTI Appeals From J&K Pile Up At CIC 

 

Very few cases from J&K listed for hearing in last 18 months  

AFTER enactment of J&K Reorganisation Act, 2019 dozens erstwhile state laws of Jammu & Kashmir were repealed and a large number of central laws were also extended to J&K. Under this legislation, almost 160 laws of the erstwhile state of Jammu & Kashmir were legally protected in spite of the fact that article 370 was abrogated. There were both anti-people as well as pro people laws of J&K that were given legal protection. Jammu & Kashmir Public Safety Act (PSA), 1978 along with Jammu & Kashmir Public Services Guarantee Act 2011 (PSGA) were also protected. The decision to repeal the J&K Right to Information Act, 2009, and replace it with the Centre’s RTI Act, 2005 was taken too hastily.

The central RTI Act 2005 which is applicable in J&K with effect from October 31st 2019 has not at all been helpful to people as there is no provision of an independent State Information Commission (SIC) under this law in Union Territories (UTs). Aggrieved citizens of Jammu & Kashmir intending to file an appeal or complaint under RTI Act 2005 have to move to Central Information Commission (CIC) New Delhi. In many instances, Block Development Officers (BDOs) or  school education department officers have not shared information under RTI to citizens which has forced them to file 2nd appeal before CIC even as they didn’t get justice after filing 1st appeal before a senior officer (First Appellate Authority).

In December last year, my colleague and I filed four RTI appeals with the Central Information Commission (CIC), New Delhi through an online portal. Even after more than 6 months, not even one of those four appeals has been listed for a first hearing. Is this what the Central government means by ‘empowerment’? I ask this question because, until August 2019, when Jammu and Kashmir was still a state, the J&K RTI Act, 2009, was stronger than the Centre’s RTI Act, 2005, in many respects. When the Centre repealed J&K’s RTI law and replaced it with the Union RTI legislation (RTI Act 2005), J&K was disempowered completely.

J&K Erstwhile Robust RTI law 

Without knowing the facts of the matter, BJP leaders had maintained that the people of J&K had no access to information under the RTI Act until Article 370 was read down. But the erstwhile state of J&K had actually enacted an RTI Act a year before the Centre’s RTI Act was enacted. The state’s RTI Act was enacted in 2004 by the Mufti Mohammad Syed led People’s Democratic Party and Congress Government in 2004.

When the J&K RTI Act of 2004 proved to be weak in comparison with the Centre’s RTI Act of 2005, the Omar Abdullah-led National Conference government introduced a much stronger RTI legislation in 2009. Pertinently, we had been advocating for a stronger RTI regime in J&K right from 2005 and during 2008 assembly elections,National Conference on our request had made enactment of a robust RTI law part of their election manifesto. Along with reputable NGOs like Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI) and the then central Chief Information Commissioner, Wajahat Habibullah, we had been lobbying for enactment of new RTI law in J&K. This became a reality on March 20th 2009 when the J & K legislature passed the J&K RTI Act 2009.

The J&K RTI Act, 2009 (now repealed), was similar to the RTI Act, 2005. But on certain counts, it was much better than the Centre’s law. The reason was its time-bound disposal of appeals in the State Information Commission (SIC). This provision for disposals doesn’t exist in the RTI Act, 2005, and that is why thousands of appeals remain pending before the central and state information commissions across India.

When the draft bill was prepared for the J&K RTI Act, 2009, the lacunae of the Central RTI Act were noted and kept out of the J&K RTI Act 2009. Pertinently, the J&K State Information Commission -SIC (now shut down post 370) was legally bound to dispose of 2nd appeal within 60 to 120 days. The Centre’s RTI Act, 2005, was extended to J&K with effect from October 31, 2019. If an in-depth study of the changes brought by this law were to be done by a reputable institution, the results would be astonishing. The repeal of the J&K RTI Act 2009 and many other erstwhile state laws has left the people of J&K feeling disempowered.

People of J&K, Ladakh deprived of SIC 

Under the J&K RTI Act 2009, the people of J&K and Ladakh had an independent state information commission (SIC) where they could file appeals and complaints against erring government officers. Since J&K is no longer a state, there is no longer an information commission and aggrieved RTI appellants and complainants must file their appeals and complaints in the Central Information Commission, New Delhi. Once the appeal is filed, it takes a minimum of seven to eight months for the complaint to have even its first hearing. In comparison, the J&K RTI Act 2009 made it clear that the Jammu and Kashmir SIC had to dispose of appeals within 2 to 4 months. This meant that the appeal was usually listed within a month of being filed.

No training for designated officers 

It is mandatory for the government to train designated public information officers (PIOs) and citizens, especially those belonging to the disadvantaged communities, in the use of the RTI Act 2005. Section 26 of RTI Act 2005 reads as :

“The appropriate Government may, to the extent of availability of financial and other resources:

Develop and organise educational programmes to advance the understanding of the public, in particular of disadvantaged communities as to how to exercise the rights contemplated under this Act;

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.”

In the last 18 months, not a single RTI workshop has been held by the government for the people of the backward regions of the union territories of Ladakh and J&K since the RTI Act, 2005 came into effect from 31st October 2019. The government has even failed to train its own designated officers called Public Information Officers (PIOs). The training workshops could have been held via virtual mode as well in view of COVID 19 pandemic , but this does not seem to be a priority of the Government.

Corruption Free Governance?

PM Modi had claimed that the people of J&K would get effective and corruption-free governance after Article 370 was read down. So why don’t the field officers act? Why do they constantly refuse to share information under RTI? Why do we have to file an RTI to get the beneficiary list under a scheme like the PM Kissan or PM Awas Yojna (PMAY)? Why isn’t this information available on Govt websites as mandated under section 4 of RTI Act 2005?

The delegation of J&K RTI Movement met Lieutenant Governor, Manoj Sinha, early this year and apprised him of issues related to RTI and the lack of updates on government websites. He was very cordial and within a few days, he had orders issued by the secretary of the general administration department (GAD). But once again there was no action. The deadline set by the GAD to update government websites expired at the end of February this year. The websites remain filled with obsolete information.

RTI Facilitation Centers

Ordinary villagers or even citizens from Srinagar or Jammu cannot approach the New Delhi-based CIC as  the government has failed to set up RTI facilitation centers. Because of the lack of information and awareness, most of the RTI applicants in J&K now rarely file a second appeal before the CIC. Many of them are not aware of online mechanisms to file 2nd appeal. There is nobody to guide them except for a handful of RTI activists in Srinagar, Jammu, Budgam and a few other districts. The situation in Ladakh is even worse.

Those who have already filed RTI appeals in Central Information Commission (CIC) New Delhi against erring PIOs which includes I and my colleagues are waiting for the 1st hearing of their cases. Some appellants who had filed RTI appeals 8 to 9 months back, haven’t been listed. The CIC is not to be blamed. This is not a deliberate attempt by them as they have a huge workload already with limited human resources. The CIC isn’t able to do justice as they have to hear cases against all the central government agencies plus all the UTs of India which now includes J&K as well.  Cases from J&K have in-fact increased their work while the number of commissioners at CIC remain the same. To address these concerns, the Government must create CIC’s circuit bench in J&K where RTI appeals from J&K and Ladakh could be taken care of.


Views expressed in the article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent 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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