Create an effective digital interface

With an aim of ensuring good governance and public outreach Government is planning to go for a 20 day Jan Abhiyan which means a People’s Campaign wherein Government officers will be constantly available for public across Jammu & Kashmir to redress their grievances. This campaign will begin from September 10th 2020 and culminate on Sept 30th which will then be followed by Back to Village programme part 3 ( B2V).

According to the official order issued by the General Administration Department (GAD), the twenty day public outreach campaign will focus on delivery of essential services, development demands  & public grievance redressal.

The 10 day Back to Village part III programme (B2V-3) will begin from October 1st  2020 soon after Jan Abhiyaan culminates on September 30th. Three important components are given a special thrust by Government namely Campaign for Rights (Muhim Barai Hakooq or Adhikar Abhiyan), Village Development Campaign (Deh Tarraqi Muhim or Unnat Gram Abhiyan) and Public Hearing Campaign  (Awami Sunwai Muhim or Jan Sunwai).

At a time when there is a huge surge in COVID 19 cases in J&K on a daily basis and the number of positive cases touching even 1650 per day or more is it wise enough to have such a huge gathering of people during Jan Abhiyan or Back to Village programmes?

I don’t raise questions on the intentions of the Govt to hold these programmes in spite of the fact that promises made in previous B2V programmes were hardly fulfilled. Lt Governor Manoj Sinha seems sincere towards ensuring good governance. He visited several districts, met people and took some action as well like making Anti-Corruption Bureau (ACB) active.

As the situation is not feasible for mass gatherings, I would suggest that LG must instead ensure the presence of the Government from the secretariat to block or tehsil level on social media. This presence is very much dismal in J&K as we hardly see Govt officers responsive on facebook or twitter. They don’t even respond to emails and the official fixed lines are almost non-functional in most of the Govt offices.

Presence on Twitter

Dantewada and Bijapur are the most backward districts not only in Chattisgrah state, but both the districts are considered to be one of the backward districts of India as well. But when it comes to their presence on social media, the District Magistrates (DMs) of both the districts have official Twitter handles @DantewadaDist and @bijapurcg.

I have observed both DMs actively responding to people through this platform. Even the official district websites of these Naxal effected districts are fully updated. More than 7 years back I had appreciated the DM of Bijapur for his beautiful website through my column and exposed some of J&K’s official websites which had obsolete and outdated information available on them. Even after 7 years our Govt officers & District NIC staff have not rectified their mistakes. Our official websites continue to be in shambles. I will discuss this soon through a detailed piece.

Almost 80 to 90 % of Administrative Secretaries, DCs, Directors, HoDs don’t have any official twitter handle or facebook account. There are some DCs who have official twitter handles but they are not much responsive except the Deputy Commissioners of Srinagar, Shopian and Reasi who are very much receptive. Twitter handles of DC offices of Pulwama and Bandipore districts are also satisfactory. Administrative Secretary Information and Power Rohit Kansal is always available through his personal Twitter handle.

Let us go across the border in Gilgit Baltistan province which is considered to be a backward region. I have observed that almost all the Deputy Commissioners of 14 districts in that remote place have active official twitter handles. The DCs are very much accessible, I have observed. Even the DCs in remote districts like Hunza Nagar, Ghanche and Skardu update people about their work especially during COVID-19 and people also complain about their issues.  I have been following DC Gilgit for the last 5 months and I am impressed about his work during COVID-19.

Tariq Hussain Ganai, former Deputy Commissioner Budgam would regularly update people by posting updates on COVID 19, but after his transfer from Budgam on May 27th there are no more updates. Social media handles should be institutionalized and should not stop functioning after transfer of an officer. The last post of Traiq Ganai reads: Transferred, leaving the district with 25 positive cases. After his transfer neither has the official Twitter handle of DC office Budgam @DC_Budgam been updated with some other posts nor has a new profile pic been uploaded. It remains defunct.

No response to e-mails

For the last 17 years I keep sending emails to Govt officials in J&K on their official emails regarding public issues. Almost all the official emails shown on official websites are not operational. Only a handful of officers respond back. I know DCs or Directors or even Adm Secretaries are too busy but they have the adequate staff who can respond to people. On July 29th I emailed a detailed letter to Deputy Commissioner (DC) Budgam complaining about non availability of COVID 19 expenses information on his official website. Leave aside information related to expenses, I was unable to see other details related to this deadly disease.

The Central Information Commission (CIC) has been sending notices to MHA & Health Ministry to ensure all the details about COVID 19 are made public. In Jammu & Kashmir very few government websites provide this information. Regarding expenses incurred during the last 6 months all the government websites haven’t uploaded any details at all. Section 4 (1) of RTI Act 2005 also makes it mandatory upon all public authorities to make these details public. Under the RTI link of Budgam district website, the official phone number (01951-255242) of Assistant Commissioner Revenue (ACR), who is also the designated Public Information Officer (PIO) under RTI, is invalid. No mobile number is mentioned. Pertinently I had alerted DC, ADC, ACR through WhatsApp messages about the email I sent them and still they didn’t respond at all.

Conclusion

Many readers will claim how many people have access to twitter or facebook? Yes, it is true, not all are active on social media, but there are active citizens in almost every village, city or town who post public issues on social media. These public spirited citizens can remain in touch with the Govt officers and their staff through social media and register the public grievances as well. Government thus needs to make it mandatory for Administrative Secretaries, Deputy Commissioners (DCs), Directors, Departmental HoDs, SSPs, SDMs, Tehsildars and Block Development Officers (BDOs) to have official twitter and facebook accounts so that they update citizens about their activities and get public feedback as well. COVID 19 pandemic is the best time to make social media platforms active for public service delivery. I am sure Govt will take my suggestion seriously and instead of Jan Abhiyan or B2V-III let Govt start a campaign of creating official social media accounts from the office of Chief Secretary to Block Development Office.

Dr Raja Muzaffar Bhat is Founder & Chairman of Jammu & Kashmir RTI Movement