June 13, 2022 8:54 pm

Persisting RTI Lacuna

How Will Non J&K Residents Get Info Under Malfunctioning RTI Provisions?

WHILE addressing the 14th special general body meeting of National Federation of Information Commissions of India (NFICI) in New Delhi recently, the Union Minister of State in Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) Dr Jitendra Singh said that post abrogation of Article 370 even non-domicile and non-state subjects of Jammu & Kashmir were entitled to file applications under Right to Information Act (RTI) to seek information from public authorities in J&K. Dr Singh who is also the minister in-charge Department of Personnel and Trainings (DoPT) which looks after RTI related issues said:

“Consequent to the passing of J&K Reorganisation Act 2019, the J&K Right to Information Act 2009 and the Rules there under have since been repealed and the Central Right to Information Act 2005 and the Rules there under were enforced from October 31, 2019. As a consequence to this, the difference now is that, unlike in the past, even a non-domicile or a non-state subject of Jammu & Kashmir is entitled to file RTI related to UT issues or agencies.”

The Union Minister lauded the Central Information Commission (CIC) for achieving consistent decline in pendency with corresponding rise in disposal of the Right to Information (RTI) appeals. He said that he was pleased to note that the pendency reduced from about 40,000 cases last year to around 27,000 cases at present, while the disposal of cases increased from 17017 in 2020-21 to 28901 in 2021-22.

Dr Jitendra Singh further said that ever since the Modi Government came to power in 2014, transparency, accountability and citizen-centricity became the hallmark of the governance model.

But beyond this official stance, the reality of the information campaign has drastically changed in the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir. Forget about non-residents or non-natives, even the celebrated information warriors are dealing with the information blackhole situation right now. Much of this has to do with the growing sense in the governance structure that public dealing in Kashmir needs hard measures. While this treatment is itself a big problem, it’s forcing many information warriors to wrap up their campaign with which they exposed some of the biggest scams and scandals.

Ground Situation 

When Article 370 was read down, the Jammu & Kashmir RTI Act 2009 got repealed along with dozens of central laws. Instead, the RTI Act 2005 (central law) was extended to J&K with effect from Oct 31st 2019.

Under this act, there is a provision of setting up of State Information Commissions (SIC) in states where RTI related appeals and complaints are heard. J&K also had the State Information Commission (JKSIC) constituted under the erstwhile act. The said commission was closed after the abrogation and since then we have no information commission in place in J&K. This is the biggest lacuna of the extension of RTI Act 2005 in J&K.

The PIOs are taking undue advantage of the closure of the JKSIC and treat the right to information very casually, for they know they will not be taken to task.

For almost 3 years, government officials have been non-responsive and this is especially true of requests made under the RTI Act, 2005. The government has also failed to undertake sensitisation workshops for designated Public Information Officers (PIOs) or First Appellate Authorities (FAAs). These officers were familiar with the state RTI Act of 2009 but not with the 2005 RTI Act which has now been applied to Jammu and Kashmir.

PIOs are taking undue advantage of the closure of the JKSIC and treat the right to information very casually, for they know they will not be taken to task.

The PIOs in the Deputy Commissioner’s office at Budgam, the Jammu and Kashmir Services Selection Board, the Rural Development and Panchayati Raj Department of the Jammu and Kashmir government, the Block Development Offices, the Jammu and Kashmir Housing Board at Srinagar, the Pradhan Mantri Gramin Sadak Yojana (PMGSY)  Kashmir, and many other government offices are ignoring RTI applications, nor are officials making the voluntary disclosures of information that are mandated by section 4(1)(b) of the RTI Act, 2005. In all these offices I have personally filed the applications under RTI and didn’t get a response within the stipulated time of 30 days. It took me 6 months to year to get the information that too after I had filed appeal before Central Information Commission (CIC)

Appeals before CIC 

The aggrieved people would file 2nd appeal before the erstwhile State Information Commission (JKSIC) if the information was denied by a PIO or the First Appellate Authority (FAA) would not do justice with RTI applicants. The said commission would dispose of the appeal in 60 to 120 days only, as there was legal provision in the repealed J&K RTI Act 2009. This  lacuna was found in RTI Act 2005 and drafting committee of J&K RTI Act 2009 had taken this thing into consideration.

In fact, former Central Chief Information Commissioner Wajahat Habibullah had voiced for these insertions in J&K Law and suggested the same to J&K Govt when the RTI bill was being drafted. Moreover, Jammu & Kashmir RTI Movement was fully involved in that process.

There is no such provision binding the CIC or the SICs in other states (under RTI Act, 2005). It is on this count that the now-repealed 2009 Act was considered a more progressive law than the Central RTI law (RTI Act 2005 .How can people living in remote areas of Jammu, Kashmir, or Ladakh approach the CIC in the Capital? Only educated and empowered people approach the CIC now, whereas in the past even illiterate folk would approach the JKSIC.

I had personally filed 3 appeals in Central Information Commission (CIC) New Delhi in December 2020 and they were listed for hearing after 13 to 14 months. To make people wait for a year or more to get information about, say, beneficiaries under the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana (PMAY), MG-NREGS works, or lavatories constructed under the Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM) is unjustified.

How can aggrieved people be made to wait for 1 ½ years to get information related to selection by JKSSB or JKPSC? Since the last 2 years, I haven’t heard a single case wherein the Central Information Commission (CIC) has slapped a penalty on erring Govt officers from J&K UT? This was not the case in the past as J&K State Information Commission was tough on Govt officials denying information to citizens.

A noted RTI activist  namely Mohammad Ramzan Khan had filed an appeal against JK Public Service Commission before CIC New Delhi more than a year back . After more than a year, his case was listed for hearing but  he could not get justice. Mr  Khan is no more and it is unclear whether his son can follow the case or not.

Former Chief Information Commissioners G R Sufi or Khurshid Ganai were people of great stature who tried their best to deliver and gave some landmark judgments like bringing J&K Bank under RTI ambit or taking JKPSC to task by allowing RTI applicants to check their answer scripts. All that is history now ?

No respect for LG office

Mudaser Ahmad Yatoo, an RTI activist, wanted information about the action taken by Govt against a Sarpanch and other members of Panchayat halqa Jedden Kutabal in block Chadoora (now Surasyar) who had embezzled money meant for homeless people under Indira Awas Yojna (IAY) now called PMAY.

Mudaser, in February this year, filed an application directly in the office of Lt Governor at Raj Bhavan Jammu as he apprehended the local BDO’s office or DC office Budgam would not provide the same. The LGs secretariat immediately forwarded Mudaser’s application under section 6 (3) of RTI Act 2005 to the Rural Development Department Civil Secretariat on 22.02.2022 vide communication No: LGS-3(RTI Act)X/2022/1090-91.

The designated Central Public Information Officer (CPIO) in Rural Dev Department Dr Udham Das forwarded the same application to Director Rural Development Kashmir , Srinagar on 3.3.2022. After this Mudaser is unaware as to what happened to his RTI application. Till date, the department hasn’t bothered to share the information nor has the RTI application been forwarded to ACD Budgam or BDO concerned. Mudaser wanted to know whether the Sarpanch had deposited the embezzled money back into the BDO Chadoora’s account or not. For the last 4 months Mudaser has been waiting for the information. It is a matter of serious concern that lower rung offices have no respect for the office of Lieutenant Governors Secretariat. One can only imagine how ordinary citizens would be treated by these officials.

I am sure when the case against the PIO in Directorate of Rural Development Kashmir will be filed in CIC New Delhi , the PIO won’t be taken to task at all by the commission. This author has already brought the matter into notice of Director Rural Development Kashmir Mr Imam u Din who assured he would look into this case. This officer joined the directorate only a few weeks back.

Conclusion

At a time when the residents of Jammu & Kashmir are denied information under RTI on basic issues like Bijli, Pani or Sadak or LGP how can we expect non J&K residents will get information by filing applications through speed post. Technically, non-residents and even local residents should have been given the facility to file online RTI applications, but nobody is taking up those issues inspite of the fact that I took up the matter with Secretary IT J&K Govt last year. The officer had assured me that within a month or so people would get this facility but till date nothing has happened? Is mere giving the benefits of filing an RTI application enough? The public authorities must also respond with a reply which isn’t happening in J&K since central law became applicable here. Dr Jitendra Singh must stress on ensuring applications under RTI Act are disposed off as well.


  • 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 bhatrajamuzaffar@gmail.com
Dr Raja Muzaffar Bhat

Dr Raja Muzaffar Bhat is an Acumen Fellow and Chairman Jammu & Kashmir RTI Movement. Feedback bhatrajamuzaffar@gmail.com

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