FRA Beneficiaries: Make the list public

If all the files are digitised, why are RTI applications tossed from one office to another?
FRA Beneficiaries: Make the list public

When Lt Governor Manoj Sinha was asked to speak during a programme titled Agenda Aaj Tak in December last year, he began his speech by highlighting the Forest Rights Act (FRA) having been extended to Jammu & Kashmir post article 370 abrogation. He said tribals and other forest dwellers in J&K would get benefitted from this great legislation. In fact in September last year LG Manoj Sinha gave away FRA titles to some families in Srinagar and Jammu during two separate functions.

The J&K Forest Department which is the Nodal Agency for implementation of FRA in J&K on the other hand has not made the details of the people / communities available on its website who were given FRA related titles / certificates in Srinagar or Jammu. I tried a lot to have access to it but could not find it on any Govt website of J&K. Finally, I filed an application under Right to Information Act (RTI) in Raj Bhavan around November last year.

The designated public information officer (PIO) in Raj Bhavan forwarded my RTI application to the civil secretariat Tribal Affairs Department. The officer was under this notion that the Tribal Affairs Department was the nodal agency for implementation of FRA in J&K. This is not the case here, but in other states the same department looks after Forest Rights Act related issues.

The PIO in Tribal Affairs Department civil secretariat, on 2.12.2021, forwarded RTI application to all Deputy Commissioners and Divisional Forest Officers (DFOs) and asked them to provide me the information about individual and community forest rights claims decided in their respective areas. Only the Deputy Commissioner Office Kishtwar and DFO Pir Panjaal Forest Division Budgam provided me the information. Rest of the DCs and DFOs either sent me misleading information or didn’t respond at all. Some DCs further forwarded my RTI applications to their Tehsildars. Ironically the Tehsildars have nothing to do with the Forest Rights Act. A Tehsildar from Panchari tehsil told me to deposit Rs 100 through an official communication, but he didn’t mention any account in the letter nor did he mention the name of the district. It took me several hours to find out where Pancheri tehsil was located and finally a friend told me it was a newly created tehsil in Udhampur district. Tehsildar Gund in Ganderbal vide his letter dated 11.1.2022 clearly said that no FRA related certificate has been given to any ST or forest dweller in his area of jurisdiction. DFO Rajouri informed me in his reply that the names of FRA beneficiaries and other things are not in shape and consolidated or tabulated form? He asked me to visit Rajouri and inspect the records ?

As I write this piece I got a reply from DFO Kulgam. The letter is dated 18th January 2022 but has been dispatched via speed post on Feb 3rd to me. It reached my office on February 10th 2022. The office had received the letter from the Tribal Affairs Department in December and after more than 2 months the officer is demanding xerox fee from me? He isn’t aware of the fact that after expiry of 30 days no photocopying charges can be sought? This indicates that designated PIOs under RTI don’t even go through RTI Act 2005 and its rules, nor is Govt training them at local level in districts.

Supreme Court Notice

The Supreme Court recently issued a notice to the government of India in response to a petition filed by a social activist KC Jain to effectively implement section 4 [section 4(2) in particular] of the RTI Act. A bench of Justices Sanjay Kishan Kaul and MM Sundresh sought a reply from the Center by issuing a notice to the government of India.

“There should be suo moto disclosure of all vital information. Section 4(2) embodies this mandate of suo moto proactive disclosures,” Jain’s plea states. Pertinently, several reports and orders of the Central Information Commission and various State Information Commissions (SICs) confirm the poor implementation of section 4. The petitioner also submitted that three other related petitions are pending before the court.

What is Suo Moto Disclosure?

According to section 4, every public authority shall maintain duly catalogued and indexed records to facilitate the right to information. This includes digitising all relevant documents and connecting them through a country-wide network to enable access. The section says public authorities will provide the public with information at regular intervals through the internet and other means of communication.

The central RTI Act, 2005, has been in force in Jammu and Kashmir since 31 October 2019, but the government has not made it operational here, especially not the voluntary disclosure clause. After Article 370 was revoked the Jammu and Kashmir State Information Commission (SIC) was shut down, and the RTI Act 2005 replaced the Jammu and Kashmir RTI Act 2009. Ironically, the 2005 Act has no provision for a State Information Commission in a Union Territory. Now that Jammu and Kashmir stands reduced to a Union Territory, it has been clubbed with the Central Information Commission. Now, for more than a year, our second appeals were not even listed for a hearing. Under the 2009 RTI Act that applied to the state, the State Information Commission was legally bound to dispose of appeals within 60 to 120 days. This provision is not available in RTI Act 2005.

PIL in High Court

This writer sought judicial intervention and filed a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) before the Jammu and Kashmir High Court in May 2018. The Jammu and Kashmir government had failed to adhere to voluntary disclosure of information despite being reprimanded several times by the erstwhile State Information Commission. On 24 December 2018, the division bench of Justices AM Magrey and Sanjeev Kumar, High Court, directed the Govt to adhere to sections 4 and 23 of the 2009 RTI Act. Section 23 legally bound the authorities to mass awareness of the RTI Act. From 2009 to 2018, very few RTI awareness programmes were held in Jammu and Kashmir. The government even failed to train its designated Public Information Officers (PIOs). This author obtained information under the RTI Act which revealed that very few RTI awareness programmes were held in Jammu and Kashmir for government officials. The appearing Additional Advocate General had assured the court that Jammu and Kashmir would have no difficulty adhering to the said provision of RTI law. In an earlier order dated 3 April 2018, the division bench of acting Chief Justice Ramalingam Sudhakar and Justice MK Hanjura had directed the General Administration Department of the Jammu and Kashmir government to ask all government offices to comply with section 4 of the now-repealed 2009 Act. Even after final orders were pronounced on 24 December 2018, proactive disclosures under section 4 did not begin.

Conclusion

I appreciate the Govt for digitizing all the files under the e-office programme. Almost every file in the civil secretariat is in digital format now. I am not able to understand why RTI applications of people are still being tossed from one office to another when the information can easily be provided via email to applicants. From Raj Bhavan to Tribal Affairs Department and then to DCs and DFO offices, my RTI application has been sent to 20 DC and 25 DFO offices in J&K and even after almost 70 days only two offices have provided me the information.

If the DC office Kishtwar or DFO Budgam had FRA related information with them and they sent it to me as well, why don’t other DCs and DFOs have this in their office? Why are DCs forwarding RTI applications to Tehsildars; will they produce FRA related information through some magical or supernatural act? If every file has been or is being digitized and no paper files are seen in the civil secretariat, then why isn’t an Aam Admi getting benefited from JK Govt’s e-office programme?

Dr Raja Muzaffar Bhat is an Acumen Fellow.

He is Founder & Chairman of Jammu & Kashmir RTI Movement

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts, analysis, assumptions and perspective appearing in the article do not reflect the views of GK.

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