Do we have Right to Information?

Every year 28th September is universally observed as International Day for “Universal Access to Information”. While recognizing its significance, the United Nations General Assembly has proclaimed 28th September as international day of “Access to Information”. And this year the focus has been given on “Right to Information Act” in times of present global crises, with constitutional, statutory, and policy guarantees for public access to information to save lives, build trust, and the formulation of sustainable policies.

Meanwhile “Right to Information” is a part of efficient governance, with its constitutional principles of Transparency and Accountability. In 2005, the Government of India enacted its own “Right to Information Act 2005” for its citizens, to access any information from any Public authority, so to promote transparency and accountability. With the formulation of this RTI Act 2005, the law has opened various pathways that the Administration has to be properly ensured that any policy or decision is in public domain. After that the “Right to Information” had been recognized as a fundamental right under part third of the constitution. However, the “Right to Information Act 2005″ was not applicable to erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir, due to special status and the J&K has enacted its own “RTI Act 2009” with close proximity to central “RTI Act 2005”.

Case Study with reference to J&K

Being campaigners of people friendly laws related to transparency, awareness and grievance redressed, every time we heard, particularly post 5 August 2019,   that “RTI will be introduced to J&K”, we were shocked over the lies. The news anchors were not clear in saying that there was already J&K’s own RTI Law known as J&K Right to Information Act 2009 and that it was being replaced with Central RTI Law 2005 after abrogation of Article 370.

While keeping in view of the present overall scenario of J&K, it clearly looks that the “J&K RTI Act 2009” was stronger than the “Central RTI Act 2005”. The “J&K RTI Act 2009” didn’t have the exemption clause under Section 8 (1) (s) which pertains to information received from a foreign government in confidence. While the Central Act had ten exemptions, the state law had just nine. Second, the J&K RTI law provided the State Information Commission established under it a time limit of 60 to 120 days to give a decision on a second appeal. This time limit is not specified in Central RTI Act 2005. Third, if the appellate authority found any PIO not performing the duties properly, a reference could be made to the State Information Commission (SIC) which had the power to impose penalties on the officer. Such a provision does not exist in the central RTI law.

J&K lost State Information Commission

J&K has lost a Commission that was set up under J&K RTI Act 2009 wherein RTI Appellants could file second appeals and appeals. People from both Jammu and Kashmir had an easy reach to the Commission. It had two Information Commissioners and a Chief Information Commissioner. Pendency was less and the appeals could be easily filed and heard as there was a time limit of 60-120 days under the erstwhile law. Unfortunately with the replacement of J&K RTI Act 2009, the Commission doesn’t exist anywhere, after which some PIOs and APIO’s are still in a deep slumber that the RTI Act is no longer now here.

Besides, it has become more difficult for the appellants to file their appeals at Central Information Commission with its office at Delhi. We as activists can say that, we have no or least reach to the commission. We have the language issues with the Central Information Commission, which makes us suffer at the time of online hearing of appeals. The pendency at the CIC is such that our activists’ appeals from March are yet to be heard, because of which information seekers are right now in great dilemma.

Before August 5, our applicants used to approach the State Information Commission, with any issue related to RTI. The commission received very few complaints as many PIOs were well aware about J&K RTI Act. But unfortunately after the abrogation of Article 370, even some PIOs were confused whether RTI law existed in J&K or not. PIOs and appellate authorities are not still trained about Central RTI Act 2005. People are living with a perception that RTI Law no more exists in J&K. This has increased the harassment cases of activists.

Tailpiece

RTI Act being a fundamental right, the J&K RTI Foundation is sure that the Administration will take following steps to strengthen this fundamental right of access. The harassment against RTI Activists should be stopped and “Whistle Blowers Protection Law” must be introduced. Second, The Central Information Commission must set up its branch in Kashmir, so that the applicants can attend the hearings of their cases on time. Third, the Information Commissioners from Kashmir must be given a place at the Central Information Commission which will suit our people in terms of language, culture and information. Disposing off J&K’s appeals at CIC Delhi by some person not knowing Kashmir looks non-sensible. Moreover, the CIC and J&K Government must make fresh awareness of Central RTI Law both for PIOs and the common masses.

(Er Irfan is a founder J&K RTI Foundation & Er Shah Khalid is a freelance contributor & Spokesperson J&K RTI Foundation)