RTI in the times of virus

Central Right to Information Act of 2005 has been applied to Jammu and Kashmir along with many other Central Laws after the abrogation of Article 370. RTI Activists have been very much concerned about the Right to Information Law’s weakness and non-availability of Commission in J&K and are worried about the current situation as they feel that Government Information is now becoming a coronavirus casualty in Kashmir. The information dissemination process has almost stopped at a time when there was an opportunity for the government to disseminate more and more information to public. The government officials quarantining at home could establish a network if 4G is restored and information, as much as available, could be uploaded online and put up in a public searchable platform.

Information in Kashmir has become a casualty of hartals, curfews, conflict, floods, unawareness of people and now Covid-19 crisis. I share the grave concern of people everywhere in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic.

There is no doubt that in most of the countries currently it would be very difficult for the governments to provide information to the public but the information in which there is the collective interest of the people must be provided to the people in these extraordinary times through various means. The right to Information Act should remain important for holding power to account during this extraordinary time. In fact, requests of information related to Covid-19 must be prioritized and there should be no need to file RTI applications related to it. The government must pro-actively disclose all information related to Covid-19 through District Websites, Doordarshan, Radio, Social Media and SMS Services. Access to information, especially proactive disclosure help people to get information they need to survive the crisis – an infection or otherwise. As an RTI Activist and campaigner, I argue that the information related to Covid-19 in many cases falls under life and liberty clause, which means, it is obligatory for the Health Department as a Public Authority to disclose the information to the public within 48 hours. For Journalists disclosure should be made within a day.

The risk of corruption and theft of public resources is high during crises – people want to take advantage of emergencies to circumvent procedures and questions about value for money – and there are many examples. Dr. Raja Muzaffar who is also an RTI Campaigner has also recommended for maintenance of a separate website for the Covid-19 related matters in J&K as we have had a very bad experience of the past. There was huge embezzlement of funds during floods of 2014 and in other schemes of government where there was shortage of time to disburse the relief and funds. Increase in information among public will reduce the possibility of corruption, build pressure on those who hold power to use it for public good during crises and arrest the misdeeds of untrusted officials who are the gatekeepers of information during crisis. On long term impacts, history points to two opposing scenarios-and it seems access to information or lack of it determine how people will react in future. In some cases and countries crises have raised national cautiousness resulting in high civic competence- citizens want to trust but verify every action of authorities- e.g. Kenya and South Africa. In other circumstances the spirit is crushed- don’t trust, don’t speak and don’t do anything. Examples are also very many.

The scale and severity of the Covid-19 pandemic clearly rises to the level of a public health threat that could justify restrictions on certain rights, e.g. those that result from the imposition of quarantine or isolation limiting freedom of movement. At the same time, careful attention to human rights such as non-discrimination and human rights principles e.g. transparency and respect for human dignity can foster an effective response during the turmoil and disruption that inevitably results in times of crisis and limit the harms that can come from the imposition of overly broad measures that do not meet the above criteria. J&K RTI Foundation expresses concern about the prospects for more corruption in these times. It is essential that transparency, openness and integrity are maintained and extended across the health sector.

Engineer Irfan is Chairman of J&K RTI Foundation is currently pursuing Research in Social Anthropology.