Universal Access to Information

When article 370 was abrogated last year, ruling BJP leaders did a lot of drum-beating claiming that “special status” given to the people of Jammu & Kashmir had deprived them of various rights that the rest of India enjoyed. The leaders kept claiming that due to non-applicability of many central legislations in J&K, people were dispossessed of many entitlements and rights. BJP leaders and even many central Govt. Ministers had been constantly saying that people of Jammu & Kashmir were deprived of laws like Right to Information Act (RTI), which is a big lie. Yes, it is true that RTI Act 2005 (Central RTI Act) was not applicable in J&K, but Jammu & Kashmir had a robust RTI legislation enacted in year 2009 during Omar Abdullah led Government. That law was more progressive than the RTI Act 2005 (central act).

How we got disempowered?

After extending RTI Act 2005 to J&K, we got deprived of the State Information Commission (SIC), like many other commissions, as Union Territories (UTs) are not entitled to have a separate Information Commission. 2nd appeals under RTI Act 2005 are now filed before the Central Information Commission (CIC) New Delhi. All the pending appeals in J&K State Information Commission (JKSIC) have been transferred to CIC New Delhi, but in the last 1 year not even a single appeal filed by me and my colleagues has been listed for hearing, this was not the case in past? RTI appellants from far off villages have stopped using RTI. They hardly know how to file an appeal before CIC? Aggrieved would get justice from JKSIC within few months only as state commission was supposed to dispose of RTI appeals within 60 to 120 days only. There was a separate provision in JK RTI Act 2009 for the same.  Under RTI Act 2005 there is no such legal binding. It takes months and years to get justice from the Central and State Information Commissions in India. Few months back RTI activists in Maharashtra served a legal notice to their State Information Commission asking it to lay out a roadmap to ensure timely disposal of appeals. More than 58000 RTI appeals are pending before SIC Maharashtra. This was not the case with J&K in past ? The time bound disposal of RTI appeals made erstwhile J&K RTI Act 2009 more progressive than RTI Act 2005. In-fact such a provision is not seen in most of the RTI laws in Asian countries.  For the last almost 1 year RTI Act 2005  (central law) is applicable in J&K, but as a longtime RTI campaigner, I get regular calls and messages from aggrieved information seekers who complain that Govt departments are reluctant in providing information under RTI. Ironically not even a single awareness programme has been held during the last 1 year by the Government for the designated officers after they were asked & tasked to implement the new RTI law. Training could have been given through virtual mode also , but nobody has even thought about it. Under RTI Act 2005 Govt has to create awareness for the citizens, disadvantaged communities as well as mandated under section 26 of RTI Act 2005.

Sec 26 of RTI Act 2005 reads:

“The appropriate Government may, to the extent of availability of financial and other resources develop and organize educational programmes to advance the understanding of the public, in particular of disadvantaged communities as to how to exercise the rights contemplated under this Act. Encourage public authorities to participate in the development and organization of programmes referred to in clause (a) and to undertake such programmes themselves. Promote timely and effective dissemination of accurate information by public authorities about their activities and train Central Public Information Officers or State Public Information Officers, as the case may be of public authorities and produce relevant training materials for use by the public authorities themselves. The appropriate Government shall, within eighteen months from the commencement of this Act, compile in its official language a guide containing such information, in an easily comprehensible form and manner, as may reasonably be required by a person who wishes to exercise any right specified in this Act “

Digital Information

In 2015 Modi Government launched Digital India campaign with an aim to ensure the Government’s services are made available to citizens electronically by improving online infrastructure and by increasing internet connectivity or making the country digitally empowered in the field of technology. During the last 6 months people have less access to Govt offices in view of COVID 19 pandemic. This was the best time to receive RTI applications through electronic mode and provide reply through email, but the J & K Government has miserably failed to create an effective digital interface vis a vis Right to Information Act (RTI).  Ironically 4G internet service has also not been restored for more than a year. If whole of India is enjoying 4G internet on mobile phones , why deny this right to us? Govt claimed article 370 was an impediment in giving us similar entitlements which were being enjoyed by people in India, why then deny high speed internet service to us? Govt seems to be not interested in extending the digital India campaign to Kashmir. The designated First Appellate Authorities (FAAs) and Public Information Officers (PIOs) under RTI Act 2005 are themselves not aware about their roles and responsibilities. Recently the Assistant Director Food Civil Supplies and Consumer Affairs (FCS & CA) Shopian (designated-PIO) while responding to an RTI applicant Gazi Muzamil provided him information under J&K RTI Act 2009 which has repealed a year back. Similarly, the Executive Engineer PMGSY Budgam asked an unmarried information seeker Syed Farhat to append his own BPL Ration card as his father’s ration card was not accepted in lieu of application fees.  How can an unmarried person have a separate ration card ? Baramulla district website still has information on J&K RTI Act 2009. Budgam district website is a comedy of errors. Govt has failed to create a user guide on RTI Act 2005 for citizens during the last 1 year. Not even a single webinar has been held on RTI Act 2005 by Govt for the designated officers.

Conclusion

September 28th was declared as International day for Universal Access to Information (IDUAI) during 74th UN General Assembly meeting held on October 15th 2019. This year’s theme is “access to information in times of crisis”. As the theme suggests the only way of access to information during the ongoing  pandemic is to obtain the same through a digital mode, but will take a lead ? Bureaucrats in Jammu & Kashmir can display their leadership and build public trust amid COVID-19 crisis by making voluntary disclosure of information, but this information is not provided even after seeking the same through an RTI application. Information seekers feel disillusioned. Instead of getting empowered with the applicability of RTI Act 2005 post article 370 abrogation, people of J&K feel completely disempowered and demoralized as the institution of RTI has almost collapsed. Lt Governor must take a strong notice of it.

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