Building Back Better with Access to Information
SOON after the Article 370 was abrogated on August 5th 2019, it was claimed that the constitutional provision under article 370 deprived people of J&K of the benefits of many central legislations. Especially in the context of the RTI law, it was said that the people of Jammu & Kashmir were deprived of even the Right to Information Act (RTI).
On the face of it, this claim is not untrue. However, it is far from painting the true picture. While it is true that RTI Act 2005 (central law) was not applicable in J&K, but the erstwhile state of Jammu & Kashmir had a better RTI law enacted in 2009 during Omar Abdullah led NC -Congress Government. The said law, known as the J&K RTI Act 2009 was more progressive and people friendly. After more than 2 years of its repeal , people intending to access information from public authorities have realized that J&K ‘s erstwhile RTI law had better provisions than the existing central law (RTI Act 2005).
Disempowerment of people
People of Jammu & Kashmir have been deprived of the State Information Commission (SIC) after Central RTI law (RTI Act 2005) was extended to J&K with effect from Oct 31st 2019. The Union Territories (UTs) are not entitled to have a separate Information Commission. The appeals under RTI Act 2005 (2nd appeals) are now filed before the Central Information Commission (CIC) New Delhi. All the pending appeals in erstwhile J&K State Information Commission (JKSIC) have also been transferred to CIC New Delhi. During the last 1 year, not even a single appeal filed in CIC has been listed for hearing. Only the old appeals that were pending in J&K State Information Commission (JKSIC) are being listed for hearing. One of the complaints titled Dr Raja Muzaffar v/s PIO DC office Srinagar) was listed a few months back before the Central Information Commission for hearing. This appeal was filed by me in erstwhile JK SIC back in 2018 and it was after 3 years that the case was listed. In December last year, I filed two fresh appeals in CIC but they are yet to be listed.
This was not the case in the past. The aggrieved would get justice from JKSIC within 2 to 4 months only as J&K State Information Commission (JKSIC) was supposed to dispose off RTI appeals within 60 to 120 days only. There was a legal provision in JK RTI Act 2009 for this. 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.
A few 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. The time bound disposal of RTI appeals made erstwhile J&K RTI Act 2009 more progressive than Central RTI Act 2005. Infact such a provision is not seen in most of the RTI laws in Asian countries.
For the last 1 year, 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 Govt departments are reluctant in providing information under RTI Act 2005.
Under RTI Act 2005, Govt has to create awareness for the citizens, disadvantaged communities as well as mandated under section 26 of RTI Act 2005. Ironically, not even one awareness programme has been held during the last 1 year by the Government for the designated officers after they were asked and tasked to implement the new law. Training could have been given in virtual mode but no such initiatives have been taken.
Sec 26 of RTI Act 2005 reads :
"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. 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. 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 “
In January this year, under the RTI Act, I sought details about training programmes conducted on the PSGA and RTI Act 2005 between November 1, 2019 and January 2020 for disadvantaged communities and designated officers. The public information officer (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 as such he was constrained from divulging any exact information.
I had only sought information between November 1, 2019 and January 2021 – not any 40- or 50-year-old official records. The reality is that not a single workshop on the PSGA or RTI Act was held in Budgam district after Article 370 was read down, and the same is the case in other districts as well.
By not creating awareness about the RTI Act, the government has not only violated legal provisions (section 26 of RTI Act 2005) but is also guilty of depriving people of their right to know.
Today (September 28th) is the International day for Universal Access to Information (IDUAI). This year's theme for the day is The Right to Know – Building Back Better with Access to Information. The theme aims at highlighting the fact that the public’s need for accurate and reliable information has never been stronger than now, as countries struggle to overcome the COVID-19 pandemic, rebuild communities and institutions. The public servants in J&K and other states can display their leadership and build public by making voluntary disclosure of information as mandated under section 4 (1) (b) of RTI Act 2005. The Govt websites must be updated on a regular basis and public authorities be encouraged to be more active on social media to address public grievances. Govt must hold awareness camps and workshops for understanding of the RTI law as mandated under section 26 and the entire process from filing of RTI application to providing of info be digitized. Lastly, the State Information Commission should be set up in J&K as appeals from J&K are piling up at CIC with very weak disposal of appeals.
- Views expressed in the article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the editorial stance of Kashmir Observer
Be Part of Quality Journalism
Quality journalism takes a lot of time, money and hard work to produce and despite all the hardships we still do it. Our reporters and editors are working overtime in Kashmir and beyond to cover what you care about, break big stories, and expose injustices that can change lives. Today more people are reading Kashmir Observer than ever, but only a handful are paying while advertising revenues are falling fast.