J&K Chief Secretary Dr A K Mehta a few months back had impressed upon all the Govt offices to make all the offline services online. As per the Govt statement issued on December 16th 2022, the Chief Secretary while reviewing the performance of the Information Technology (IT) Department in a meeting, directed the officers to prepare a list of all the services provided by the Govt departments. The Chief Secretary directed the officers to separate the services still offered through offline mode and prepare a roadmap for offering the same through an online platform with end-to-end digitisation by January 15th 2023. Chief Secretary Dr A K Mehta during the meeting asked the officers of the IT department to issue advisories to different Govt departments for conducting security audits of their official websites as well without any delay. By January 15th 2023 all the offline services had to be made online, but even as we have crossed mid Feb, the applicants continue to seek information under Right to Information Act 2005 (RTI Act) through an offline mode with obsolete methods. They write down an RTI application, take its printout, then go and purchase the Indian Postal Order (IPO) of Rs 10 which isn’t available in local post offices. For getting this postal order the applicants have to either go to GPO Srinagar or some bigger post office located in district headquarters. After this the applicants are in search of a post office to send the application and it takes weeks for the RTI application to reach a Govt office. On the contrary, this is not the case with central Govt offices. One can file an RTI application on a cell phone and pay application fees online. If J&K is directly ruled by the centre for the last many years, why are not the same facilities given to people of J&K?
800 plus central laws have been extended to J&K after article 370 was abrogated. There are many central legislations that can benefit the people directly but unfortunately neither the people nor the law enforcing agencies in Govt have been trained to implement these laws. No training is given to officers to implement RTI Act 2005, Right to Education Act, Forest Rights Act 2006, Consumer Protection Act 2019, Right to Fair Compensation Act 2013. The erstwhile state law J&K Public Services Guarantee Act -PSGA-2011 which is a saved legislation is also not implemented on ground. Technically people should have been benefited by these laws through digital platforms or an online mode. Whether it is filing of RTI application of seeking details under PSGA, Consumer Protection Act, Prevention of SC, ST Atrocities Act 1989, Forest Rights Act (FRA), Transgender Act etc the people could have availed the benefits of these laws digitally, but this isn’t happening on ground.
The practical challenges
As there is no facility available in J&K to file RTI applications through an Online mode in spite of Govt’s assurances, the information seekers have to face lots of challenges. They face difficulty especially to deposit RTI application fees of Rs 10 in the shape of Indian Postal Order (IPO). To buy an Indian Postal Order (PIO) is a herculean task in J&K. I have not come across a single post office in any urban or rural area of J&K where Rs 10 Indian Postal Orders (IPOs) are available freely. I have been writing about it for the last many years now. In a city like Jammu, or Srinagar, and also district headquarters, one can buy an IPO from a post office. But this is impossible in rural areas or other towns. If a person from a remote village of Bandipora wants to file an RTI application, he or she will have to travel all the way from the village to Bandipora town or Sopore to get the Indian postal order (IPO). I am personally witness to it as I could not even get an IPO in a town like Chadoora or Charar e Sharief ? I always buy IPOs from General Post Office (GPO) Srinagar. How can we call this citizen friendly? Had online RTI service been available in J&K like central Govt offices, people living in remote areas like Dachan, Marwah in Kishtwar or Poshana in Poonch could also access information from the office of Prime Minister, Civil Secretariat, Raj Bhavan or any other office located in Jammu or Srinagar. To seek information through an offline mode, an RTI applicant has to travel to Govt offices, pay bus fare and then spend the whole day in the town. This is a costly affair even for those applicants who live under Below Poverty Line (BPL) category. The BPL applicants have not to pay Rs 10 IPO but to send the RTI application via speed post is a challenge for them. They have to travel to a town to send the application to the Govt office through a speed post. In some cases these poor applicants travel to their tehsil, block or district headquarters spending at least Rs 300 to 500 for the same plus leaving their work for a day. Even after such a struggle the PIOs don’t respond to them?
If the Chief Secretary has given clear directions to make all the offline services online by Jan 15th 2023, what is preventing Govt officers from not adhering to his orders ? I was told more than two years back by the then Secretary IT J&K Govt Mr Amit Sharma that filing of online RTI applications will be a reality within a few weeks. He said this publicly in a TV debate with me which was aired on Doordarshan. The officer could not fulfil his verbal commitment during his tenure. Then CS directed IT Department to make all offline services online by Jan 15th, again the orders have not been implemented even as the said deadline is over. Seeking information under RTI Act through an offline method is too hectic a job. Let the Govt take this issue seriously & fulfil its promise.
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.