Recently an information seeker was asked to pay more than Rs 4000 as xerox fees by the Executive Engineer R&B division Bandipora who is also the designated Public Information Officer (PIO) under RTI Act 2005.
I got to know about this through a local RTI activist of Bandipora who sent me the copy of the letter issued by the Executive Engineer. The letter signed by Executive Engineer R&B division Bandipora addressed to RTI applicant Parvaiz Ahmad Bhat who hails from Ajas Bandipora reads:
“Regarding the subject cited above , the requisite information as desired by you through RTI Act has been kept ready by this office and accordingly you are hereby informed to deposit the necessary Photo State charges of the requisite documents. The details of the documents furnished by the Assistant Executive Engineer (AEE) Sub Division Bandipora vide No: 1921 dated 02.03.2023 are as under: Total Pages allotment , M Book & works register 105 pages = Rs 525, Drawing pages 73 @ Rs 50 / page = Rs 3650, L section drawing 1 page = Rs 50 , Site Plan 3 pages @ Rs 50 / Page -= Rs 150 . Total Cost= Rs 4375”
On receiving the letter the RTI applicant Parvaiz Ahmad got agitated as he had been asked to deposit huge charges to the Executive Engineer. The information seeker was not only agitated over the officer for demanding exorbitant fees but being an BPL (PHH) applicant , he was supposed to get the information free of cost as per the provisions of RTI Act 2005.
When I saw the letter, I posted the same on social media and tagged many Govt officers. It was not clear why Rs 50 per page is being demanded from an applicant ? A person like me with no civil engineering background can’t understand the logic behind paying Rs 50 for a page of drawing sheet ? Normally the Govt has fixed the xerox fees @ Rs 2 per page. The PIO (Xen R&B Bandipora) should have made this clear that drawing sheets are large in size and that is why Rs 50 per sheet are being charged as photostat fees ? It is still unclear whether Rs 50 are charged per copy by photostat shops for large size drawing sheets ? Ironically even the official letters written in English by Govt offices are not grammatically correct and in many cases photostat is written as Photostate or Photo State , this mistake has been committed by Xen R&B Division Bandipora also. In this case the RTI applicant should not have been charged anything as he belongs to BPL category and had attached the PHH ration card with the RTI application, but again his credentials were being questioned. The officer should have questioned the Food Civil Supplies department, rather than telling the RTI applicant that 50 % BPL ration cards are fake in J&K. This is not the case with Parvaiz only but in Bonen Surasyar, district Budgam, the PMGSY engineers a few years back got a BPL ration card of an RTI applicant Mushtaq Ahmad cross checked through Assistant Director Food & Civil Supplies Budgam. I wish the Govt officers would have instead used such energy in digitizing their record and bringing more transparency in the Govt offices. At a time when every bit of information is made public by the Govt of India, many officers in J&K don’t want people to have access to information and this is the reason they ask so many questions to RTI applicants.
Information sought by Parvaiz
The RTI application Parvaiz Ahmad Bhat wanted details of a non-motorable walkway constructed around Wular Lake from Bonyari bridge to Naz nallah plus approach road towards Delta park and the money spent on this. Technically the information should have been available proactively on DC Bandipora’s website or Chief Engineer R&B Kashmir’s website, but this isn’t there. Ideally the Executive Engineers should have a dedicated website for their respective construction divisions , but this isn’t done at all. The section 4 (1) of RTI Act 2005 lays emphasis on voluntary disclosure of information by public authorities so that less number of people will have to seek information using RTI Act 2005. As mentioned in my previous articles , the Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojna (PMGSY) project in Kashmir also doesn’t upload its DPRs on a web portal. People file RTI applications in their offices which are hardly responded to. The information isn’t available in digital format at all. Why ? Why doesn’t the office of Chief Engineer PMGSY Kashmir or Jammu have dedicated websites ? When this author spoke to Executive Engineer R&B Division Bandipora Assadullah Najar he told me that drawings etc are prepared by some private engineers and they have a copyright over it and that is why they don’t provide the drawings in digital format to them? I couldn’t understand why Govt engineers have to hire private architects or engineers for making drawings of the Govt projects? Moreover Executive Engineer had a valid point regarding no budgetary allocation given to Govt offices for providing free information to BPL applicants seeking information under RTI Act 2005. If dozens of BPL applicants file RTI in a Govt offices and demand thousands of pages of information , who will pay the amount to the PIO of the office ? I would request the Chief Secretary to look into this issue.
GAD’s circular & Online services
In December 2022 J & K Government directed all the Public Authorities to ensure strict adherence to the provisions of the Right to Information Act 2005 (RTI Act) and facilitate speedy dissemination of information to the information seekers. The Secretary General Administration Department (GAD) had instructed all Administrative Secretaries, Heads of Departments and Managing Directors to conduct fortnightly reviews to ascertain the status of disposal of RTI applications received in their offices. In addition to it they were also directed to furnish the compliance report on RTI implementation to the GAD.
“The objective of the Right to Information Act, 2005 is to empower citizens by way of promoting transparency and accountability in the working of the government and eradicating corruption to make democracy work for the people in real sense. An informed citizen is well equipped to keep necessary vigil on the instruments of governance and make the government more accountable towards the citizens,” reads the circular issued by Secretary GAD on December 16th 2022
In addition to it Chief Secretary Dr A K Mehta in January impressed upon all the Govt offices to make all the services online. He asked the officers of the IT department to issue advisories to different Govt departments for conducting security audits of their official websites as well without any delay. By January 15th 2023 all the offline services had to be made online, now we have crossed the mid March and we continue to seek information under Right to Information Act 2005 (RTI Act) through an offline mode, which is also denied and questions are being raised by the PIOs.
More than 800 plus central laws have been extended to J&K post article 370 abrogation. Several progressive laws have been extended to J&K. In addition to RTI Act 2005 we have laws like Forest Rights Act (FRA), Right to Education Act (RTE), Right to Fair Compensation Act , Consumer Protection Act, Transgender Welfare Act, Prevention of SC ST Atrocities Act applicable in J&K, but the awareness and implementation of these laws questionable ? I brought this issue into the notice of Union Home Minister Mr Amit Shah in November 2021 when we met him in Srinagar. He asked Lt Governor Mr Manoj Sinha to hold a meeting with us, and appreciated that I highlighted the issue of non implementation of central laws in J&K. In-fact Mr Sinha asked me to meet him and his ADC noted down my contact number as well. It is now more than 15 months since our delegation met with the Home Minister, but the follow-up meeting hasn’t been called by the officers in Raj Bhavan. In-fact , I sent some emails to the Principal Secretary to Lt Governor last year, but there was no response until the officer got transferred. I hope the new Principal Secretary will take notice of this issue. Extending 800 plus central laws is useless unless the Govt officers are not trained to enforce them on ground and people don’t benefit from these legislations. I would suggest the Govt to hold a massive training programme on RTI Act 2005 at least so that people don’t have to suffer on accessing the information from Govt offices. The Raj Bhavan provides information under RTI within stipulated time but the office of BDO, Executive Engineer or a block or Tehsil level officer is reluctant to respond to RTI applicants.
Dr Raja Muzaffar Bhat is an Acumen Fellow. He is Founder & Chairman of Jammu & Kashmir RTI Movement
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are the personal opinions of the author.
The facts, analysis, assumptions and perspective appearing in the article do not reflect the views of GK.