On August 5th 2019 when the Parliament was debating the J&K Reorganisation Bill 2019 to abrogate Article 370, Union Home Minister Amit Shah said the state’s special status was the root cause of corruption in Jammu & Kashmir. Union Minister Prakash Javadekar in his speech said reservations for various sections of society, RTI Act and Right to Education were not applicable in J&K due to “political” reasons.
It has been now one year since Article 370 has been declared null and void, but as a longtime campaigner of the Right to Information and good governance in the J&K Government, I have found that mis-governance and corruption remains as prevalent as it was when J&K was a state. In fact, it often appears that incompetence and inefficiency have become the rule of law in government offices during the last one year. The reason is that there are little checks and balances, and institutions to which government officials were answerable have been shut; like SIC, SHRC and so on. The officers at the helm now even don’t respond to information seekers and the aggrieved, especially at a time when there is a COVID 19 pandemic? RTI applications are not responded to in the majority of cases. I can provide authorities a long list of such official violators.
District Administration Budgam
As I could not see any COVID 19 related details available on official website of Budgam district (www.budgam.nicin), I recently emailed a detailed letter to Deputy Commissioner (DC) Budgam regarding 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 government of India (MHA & Health Ministry) to ensure all the details about COVID 19 are made public. In Jammu & Kashmir very few government websites provide this information, and regarding expenses incurred during the last 5 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 Act 2005, is invalid. No mobile number is mentioned. I found an email ID of the officer email@example.com and I sent a copy of the letter mailed to DC to ACR as well, plus copying Additional DC too, but there was no response at all. Prominently I had alerted all the officers through a WhatsApp message about the email I sent them and still they didn’t respond at all.
I could not even see a PDF version of RTI Act 2005 on the official website which is applicable in J&K from Oct 31st 2019 (neither in English or Urdu). RTI Act 2005 is a new law for people of J&K, how can people in Budgam know the provisions under this law when the same is not available even on the official district website?
I am not targeting district administration Budgam, but this is just an instance as most of the district administrations also deprive citizens from accessing information via official websites? On the other hand unimportant links are present on the main page of Budgam district website like Subhash Chandra Bose Aapada Prabandhan Puraskar, final seniority list of Patwari’s 2020-21 and Yoga meetings to be held by District Ayush Officer etc.
I want to ask the authorities should COVID 19 information be available on the main page of the website, or the seniority list of Patwaris, Apada Puraskar, or Yoga meeting related updates? Can we call this a citizen friendly website which is aimed at ensuring Good Governance ?
At a time when people can’t go to the offices, isn’t it the duty of the government to update official websites, so that people can get benefitted sitting home.
Mis-governance & Mistrust
The abrogation of Article 370 did to my feelings, as it did to the feelings of all Kashmiris. But at the same time, I was hopeful, even sure that the government of India, at least in order to gain the sympathy of Kashmiris, would provide good governance, and curb corruption under a lieutenant governor (LG). But I was wrong. Government officials seem to have become more corrupt, and rude, perhaps because they no longer find themselves accountable. Several institutions of transparency and probity, like the State Information Commission (SIC), the State Human Rights Commission (SHRC), State Consumer Commission, State Accountability Commission, State Women’s Commission and State Vigilance Commission (SVC) have been shut.
The J&K RTI Act 2009, which was a more progressive law than the RTI Act 2005, was also repealed in spite of the fact that 166 J&K state laws are still protected. J&K RTI Act 2009 had a provision for the time bound disposal of appeals (2 to 4 months) but under RTI Act 2005 (central law) it takes years to dispose of appeals in Central and State commissions. Maharashtra has 58000 pending RTI appeals. RTI Activists have now issued a legal notice to the SIC Maharashtra. When Prakash Javedekar and many other BJP leaders say people in J&K had no access to RTI Act before Aug 5, 2019, this sounds like a cruel joke; and a big lie.
Scam in PDS
We recently exposed the mismanagement of the public distribution system (PDS) in Budgam and Baramulla districts. Over the last four or five years, subsidised rations meant for the poor were sold to them at exorbitant rates. Hundreds of poor consumers had not been told that they are entitled to rice for Rs 3 per kilo under the National Food Security Act (NFSA). Instead they were provided with fake ration cards, by government Storekeepers marked Above Poverty Line (APL) and Non Priority Households (NPHH), which meant they had to pay a lot more for rations than they should have (Rs 15 / Kg instead of Rs 3/ Kg). Each of the 50 consumers in Loolipora village in Chadoora Budgam and more than 150 consumers in Tarzoo Sopore who had bought rice at exorbitant rates for the last five years had been cheated of Rs 25,000 to Rs 30,000 in total. Altogether, more than Rs 50 to 60 lakhs had been embezzled from these two villages as per our rough estimate. Who has benefited from that? In spite of government’s specially constituted team having identified the officials who committed the crime in Loolipora village, anyone is yet to be taken to task. The embezzled money Rs 25 to 30 K per consumer is also not being returned back to them in Loolipora village? In the Tarzoo case, in Baramulla district, the probe was conducted on the direction of the government after we filed a formal complaint before Secretary Food and Civil Supplies. The investigation report has been sent to the government and residents of Tarzoo are waiting for the action? Issuing fake ration cards is a scam across J&K and I have requested the Anti-Corruption Bureau (ABC) on many occasions to initiate a probe, but ACB hasn’t responded till date. We will now be forced to seek a judicial intervention.
Denial of welfare entitlements
The consumers who have been given fake ration cards in J&K have not only been cheated monetarily for the last five years or more, but they have also been deprived of various government entitlements meant for the economically weaker sections of the society. Without issuance of BPL ration cards from the food department, the people have not been listed under PM’s Ujwala Yojana for subsidised LPG gas connections. They do not get monetary support under the PMAY for the construction of houses. They have no right to students’ scholarships and free or subsidised CT and MRI scans in government hospitals and much more. The problem with the ePDS is that it does not mention the name of the village in which the government store / fair price shop is situated. Instead, it names the owner of the fair price shop or store keeper, and uses a code for the village in which the shop is located. This makes it difficult for people to know if they are being cheated or not.
The doing away with the Article 370, it seems, has done little or nothing to make government officers accountable. Corruption continues in Government offices. Had the Government of India been sincere about eradicating corruption from J&K, it could have been done within months. Our transparency institutes and commissions have been closed down as mentioned above. There is huge bungling in most of the centrally sponsored schemes like PM-AY, Ujwala Gas Yojana, PM’s Kisan Samman Nidhi, farmers subsidy schemes and old age pension etc. Aggrieved persons from Karnah or Kishtwar now have to knock the doors of Central Commissions in New Delhi, which is impossible, and this would make things more complicated for the people, especially the economically weaker sections of society.
Dr Raja Muzaffar Bhat is founder and chairman of the Jammu & Kashmir RTI Movement.