Seeking justice from CIC New Delhi?

After abrogation of article 370 more than 150 erstwhile J&K State laws were repealed under J&K Re-organisation Act 2019. Jammu & Kashmir Right to Information Act 2009 (J&K RTI Act 2009) which was one of the most pro-people, pro-poor, and progressive laws, also became a casualty. For the information of readers, all the erstwhile J&K state laws were not repealed post 370 abrogation under J&K Re-organisation Act 2019. As I have mentioned in my previous columns around 166 erstwhile J&K state laws have been protected and are still operational. J&K Public Safety Act (PSA), J&K Public Services Guarantee Act 2011 (PSGA) are few such protected laws. By repealing J&K RTI Act 2009, Government of India has not only created problems for people of Jammu & Kashmir or Ladakh but this will make things more complicated for Central Information Commission (CIC) as well. The CIC is now going to have an extra burden to hear appeals and complaints from J&K and Ladakh. From May 15th Central Information Commission (CIC) has started hearing cases of Right to Information (RTI) appeals and complaints from the Union Territories of Jammu & Kashmir and Ladakh. This was disclosed by Dr Jitendra Singh, Union Minister of State in PMO recently after having a detailed interaction with Mr Bimal Julka, the Chief Information Commissioner at New Delhi based Central Information Commission (CIC)

Single Commissioner
Mr D P Sinha the senior-most Information Commissioner after Chief Information Commissioner Mr Bimal Julka is reportedly entrusted the job to hear RTI appeals/complaints from the UTs of J&K and Ladakh. Commissioner D P Sinha looks after RTI cases from Union Territories (UTs) and now he will have an extra workload from UTs of J&K and Ladakh. Dr Jitendra Singh earlier said in a statement that appellants and complainants from J&K and Ladakh can file RTI applications from home and no one will have to travel outside the UT for filing of RTI or for hearing at the commission at any stage of the entire process. He further said that this would usher in a new culture of “Justice from Home”. Within a day or so of this announcement, Central Information Commission (CIC) came up with another idea by saying that RTI appellants and complainants will have to visit District Headquarters (NIC Centers) for appeal hearings before CIC through a video conferencing. This has raised a question mark on the idea of “Justice from Home”?

Justice from Home
As per news-reports Dr Jitendra Singh said that RTI appellants and complainants from J&K and Ladakh could file the first appeal before the designated officers (First Appellate Authorities -FAAs) and can avail the facility of online hearing from home for the second appeal or complaint before the CIC New Delhi. He added that the RTI applicants can file their applications online anytime during 24 hours, day or night, and from anywhere including from home. Mr Singh also informed through press briefing that any citizen of India can now file an RTI pertaining to matters related to J&K and Ladakh, which was earlier reserved only for domicile citizens of the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir. As we are witnessing frequent internet gag in Kashmir valley and people of J&K being denied access to 4G Internet, is Justice from Home possible ? How can one file an online RTI application when there is no internet or weak internet plus facility of online RTI not being available in J&K or Ladakh at all ? The idea of Justice from Home can’t be achieved at least in J&K in the present political scenario.

Empowerment or Dis-empowerment
J&K RTI Act 2009 was almost similar to central RTI Act 2005, but on some counts J&K’s RTI law was more progressive and people friendly. Some politicians and TV debaters were making a false propaganda that people of J&K had no Right to Information in past. This is totally a mis-information campaign. In the central law (RTI Act 2005), there is no time-frame to dispose of the second appeal when it reaches the State or the Central Information Commission. But under the J&K RTI Act 2009 (now repealed), the State Information Commission (SIC) was required to dispose of the second appeal within 2 to 4 months. This time-bound provision ensured a better justice delivery vis a vis RTI cases in past. Now RTI complainants and appellants who don’t get information from BDO and Tehsil offices in J&K and Ladakh will have to wait for at least a year to get their RTI appeals or complaints listed before Central Information Commission (CIC) New Delhi. To get final order from CIC, aggrieved will have to wait at least for 2 to 3 years and by that time they would hardly require the particular information. This is the classic example of “Justice delayed is Justice denied”. Can we call this empowerment or dis-empowerment? Is this what Govt claims of providing Justice at Doorsteps? Under J&K RTI Act 2009, we had provision of 3 Information Commissioners (One chief and two other commissioners). When Mr G R Sufi was appointed as SIC’s first Chief Information Commissioner in 2011, there were two more commissioners to assist him namely Mr Nazir Ahmad and Prof S K Sharma. In-spite of 3 Commissioners there was a huge workload on commission. Now a single commissioner Mr D P Sinha will be hearing RTI cases from J&K and Ladakh in New Delhi. He is already overburdened with cases from other UTs like Delhi, Chandigrah, Pondichery, Dadra Nagar Haveli etc. Imagine when shall a villager from Kargil , Kupwara or Kishtwar get justice from CIC New Delhi? When shall he or she get the simple information about rural housing scheme (PMAY), SBM washrooms or MG-NREGA works? To make such disadvantaged communities wait for years for a simple information is not at all empowerment.

Conclusion
By repealing J&K RTI Act 2009, Govt of India has made things complicated for themselves and local population both. As I have been saying J&K’s RTI law could have been protected like J&K Public Services Guarantee Act (PSGA) and 165 other erstwhile State laws. Pending RTI appeals in former J&K State Information Commission (SIC) haven’t been adjudicated for last 10 months. They will be sent to CIC office New Delhi which is a hectic process. Govt offices in J&K and Ladakh hardly respond to RTI applicants post article 370 abrogation. Govt officials are under this impression that there is no local RTI Commission in J&K and the CIC in Delhi will hardly take them to task? People don’t know how to approach CIC New Delhi with appeals? Online RTI applications are not accepted in J&K? Corruption and mis-governance is rampant. Forests are being looted, payments are made for fake works under MG-NREGA. PSC and J&K Bank are not responding to aggrieved RTI applicants. Revenue department, Police, Municipal Institutions are doing corruption in broad-day light. COVID 19 expenses are not proactively being declared under section 4 of RTI Act 2005. I have already updated Mr Bimal Julka the Chief Information Commissioner about all these challenges. I had suggested to him for having a separate bench of CIC in J&K and Ladakh with at least two Information Commissioners. The commissioners can be on move and hear RTI appeals and complaints at district headquarters. He was kind enough to respond to my email some days back and assured to deliberate on my concerns.
Dr Raja Muzaffar Bhat is Founder and Chairman of J&K RTI Movement