For the last 18 months Arsheed Ahmad and his friends who hail from Chandergeer village in Hajin Bandipora have moved from pillar to post in search of some official information pertaining to their village. They used the Right to Information Act 2005 (RTI Act) which is applicable in J&K post article 370 abrogation. Arsheed and his friends wanted information on the government-run projects and schemes in their village. But the same has been denied to them since last almost 1 ½ years?
Arsheed, Showkat, Irshad, Nissar, Nazir, Manzoor and Firdous Ahmad want basic details about schemes like Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojna -PMAY, Swachh Bharat Mission -SBM. The information they want is innocuous, such as how many people in Chandergeer (and the adjoining habitation, Chak Chandergeer) could access funds to construct Swachh Bharat Mission toilets. The Block Development Officer at Hajin, who is also the Public Information Officer (PIO) under the RTI Act, has been denying these details. An order from the Central Information Commission (CIC) New Delhi also did not help Arsheed and his friends. The order at CIC was passed by the Chief Information Commissioner Y K Sinha himself and now it is more than a month and still BDO is reluctant to share the information to Arsheed & his friends.
Decline in RTI applications?
New Delhi based Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative-CHRI in its recent report said that there was a 31.44% decline in RTI applications filed in Jammu & Kashmir in 2021-22. Based on the CIC’s annual report, the study found that in just that one year, RTI applications came down from 1,603 to 1,099 in J&K. The experiences of Arsheed and his friends in Chandergeer—make the reasons for this sudden fall clear. The problems with RTI in Kashmir began after August 2019 when the Centre revoked the special status of Jammu & Kashmir. From October 31st 2019 the central RTI Act passed in 2005 applies to J&K instead of the RTI law passed in 2009 by the then Omar Abdullah led Govt on March 20th 2009 (J&K RTI Act 2009). This change has clogged the wheels of the bureaucracy, resulting in a rapid decline in interest in filing RTI applications.
There is another reason, Arsheed suspects, for the refusal to reveal names of beneficiaries of government schemes and details of funds allocated to their village though the law stipulates a 30-day limit for appeals. He told me that a list of beneficiaries of the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojna and of families who took financial aid during the 2014 flood under the State Disaster Relief Fund would have been provided if the district authorities were efficient in utilising government funds.
“Funds meant for welfare have not reached people, and [that is why] the BDO is denying us these details,” he says. “There has been complete mismanagement of funds in our village for over 15 years,” he told me
The RTI Act 2005, which now applies to J&K cannot come to their rescue, because, unlike the J&K RTI Act 2009 which was applicable in J&K before it lost statehood, it does not have a provision for time-bound appeals. This also explains why Arsheed’s appeals to senior officers and the CIC failed.
On 9 January 2022, Arsheed filed 1st appeal before the Assistant Commissioner Development (ACD) Bandipora district, against the denial of information by the BDO Hajin. He also sought action against the said officer, but when the ACD (first appellate authority-FAA) asked the BDO to appear for the hearing—a month later on the morning of 8 February 2022—he simply didn’t come for the hearing.
CIC’s direction to BDO
On 4th March 2022, Arsheed filed a second appeal before the Central Information Commission-CIC in New Delhi. The case was listed for hearing after 13 months, on 5th April 2023. This time, the BDO turned up for the online hearing, and was directed to provide the information for the third time. The CIC also ruled that the appellants could inspect the documents related to the information they wanted. On 19 April 2023, Chief Information Commissioner Mr Y K Sinha directed the PIO to apprise Arsheed, within two weeks, of “action already taken with respect to the supply of information”. But once the hearing was over, the BDO again failed Arsheed and the residents of Chandergeer again. Arsheed and his friends are feeling demoralized now.
“Government officers in Jammu and Kashmir are least bothered about the central RTI Act passed in 2005 or CIC orders. If I file a non-compliance application with CIC , that will take another year to get listed. This is the reason people don’t use RTI now in J&K “ he told me
The sharp decline can be linked to the repeal of the Jammu and Kashmir RTI Act, passed in 2009 by the legislature of the erstwhile state. Once statehood was revoked, the State Information Commission was closed, and, ever since, there have been complaints of delays in deciding appeals at the CIC.
UTs have no Info Commission
The Union Territories (UTs) do not have independent information commissions. They are clubbed with the CIC. The burden on the CIC increased after J&K was made a UT.
The CIC is not at fault because they have to look after RTI appeals against all the central ministries and departments plus the Union Territories. RTI appeals from Jammu & Kashmir are an extra burden on them. I wish our state information commission is restored and we no longer have to appeal at the CIC. Shortcomings in the central law were kept out of the erstwhile J&K RTI Act 2009 which provided for time-bound disposal of appeals within 60 to 120 days in the State Information Commission. Before August 2019, Jammu and Kashmir had its own information commission constituted under the repealed J&K RTI Act 2009. The repealed law was better than the existing RTI Act 2005 (central law) because it trailed the law Parliament passed by four years.
A few years back, RTI activists in Maharashtra served a legal notice to their State Information Commission asking for a roadmap to handle appeals on time. More than 58,000 RTI appeals were pending before the Maharashtra SIC at the time. Tragically, this was not so with the SIC of Jammu and Kashmir until Article 370 was read down. While the central government claimed in an official handout issued in April this year that there were only 300 pending RTI appeals in CIC from Jammu and Kashmir, it also reports 844 registered RTI applications in 2020-21, of which 301 were disposed of. But in 2021-22, 297 new applications were filed, of which less than half the previous number—only 114—were disposed of. There was also no mention of how much average time it takes to handle each appeal in CIC. If an appeal takes 15 to 18 months to get listed for first hearing , how can this long delay do justice to people of J&K ? For a simple information about PMAY beneficiary list from 2010 onwards & SBM Toilets Arsheed has been made to wait for the last 18 months & in spite of CICs orders the BDO isn’t providing the information. I can only say this is the worst example of Mis-Governance and Deputy Commissioner Bandipora must take this very seriously and seek an explanation from this officer.
The author is am Acumen Fellow.
He is the founder and chairman of the Jammu and 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.