BY MOHAMMAD TUYYAB MALIK
More than 3 years ago, in 2019, the Right to Information (RTI) Act, 2005 was made applicable to the Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir. This law, as compared to the earlier J&K RTI Act, 2009, allows the non-residents of Jammu and Kashmir to seek information from the public offices of the J&K. Consequently, all the citizens of the Union of India are empowered to seek information from the public authorities of Jammu & Kashmir.
Since then any citizen seeking information under the RTI Act, 2005 from any department of the UT Government has to make a physical application to the concerned department/office. Also, in order to submit the requisite fee for the RTI application, the applicant must either obtain a postal order by visiting the India Post office or a payment receipt from the Government treasury.
Thereafter, the applicant is supposed to send the application via registered post to the concerned department. This process of seeking information from the Public Offices of the Union Territory is hectic and tiresome, not only for residents but also for the non-residents of J&K.
Further, it is almost impossible, if not extremely difficult, for Non-Resident Indians (NRIs) who are desirous of obtaining information from any Department of the UT Government to make such requests, owing to the tedious physical application process.
The whole essence of RTI law and the rules framed thereunder is to promote transparency and accountability in a time-bound manner, which can only be achieved by a timely response to citizens’ requests for information. However, the postal & transit delays and other complications hinder the system’s smooth functioning.
The postal and transit delays are not limited to the submission of the request for information and the furnishing of responses thereof but extend to all the other intermediate communications made between the applicant and the PIOs, which may include but are not limited to requisitioning of additional fee/costs, additional document/information from the applicant, appointment details for inspection of documents, notice to a third party, transfer of the application to another PIO and intimation to the applicant thereof etc.
Additionally, the applicants have to incur extra costs/fees for printing, stationery, transit to and from the post offices, etc. And apart from the regular monetary and time constraints, applicants from far-flung areas face many difficulties due to the non-availability of post offices in nearby areas.
Notably, the Indian Postal Order (IPO) which is the most commonly used method of payment of application fees for RTI applications is not readily available at post offices except the General Post Office.
These, including the other challenges, cause undue inconvenience to the applicants, thereby deterring them from seeking information. In comparison, All this can be done through an Online RTI portal at minimal costs.
The Online RTI system would encourage the applicants to seek information and the implementation of it would be in line with the spirit of the transparency laws in general, the RTI Act in particular.
Moreover, on other hand, the Public Information Officers (PIOs) appointed under the Act also have to face various challenges. The time-consuming processes for the Government departments include inter-organizational transfers of requests as per provisions of the Act, collating information from multiple sections and departments, file movements, and encashment of RTI fees received by the public authority in the form of IPO and DD etc. These issues faced by the officers eventually lead to the wastage of their time and delay in furnishing responses to the applicants.
In the backdrop, having the provision of an online web portal to file/ process applications under the RTI Act, as adopted by other states, becomes relevant as it will not only facilitate the Indian citizens, including Non-Resident Indians, to seek information under the Act but also result in speedy dissemination of information requested. This, in turn, would help in achieving the aim of the RTI laws.
It is worthwhile to mention that after establishing the online RTI portal at the central level in 2013, the Central Government also requested all the State Governments to explore the feasibility of implementing online RTI portal in their States. Furthermore, the Central Information Commission (CIC) in 2020, considering the need of the hour, emphatically suggested the UT J&K to register itself with the RTI portal to facilitate the general public in filing online RTI applications and first appeals.
Presently, many states like Maharashtra, Karnataka, Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat, and Union Territories like Delhi, Chandigarh, Puducherry, etc., have established their respective online RTI portals to allow access to information digitally.
Developing the means for the online submission and disposal of RTI applications would be more convenient for the applicants and the citizens abroad. The system would also be an appropriate solution for the challenges faced by the Public Information Officers and the Appellate authorities.
Furthermore, it is unfortunate to mention that the UT of J&K, which has otherwise always been steadfast in adopting the digital route for effective and transparent administration, is lacking behind when it comes to implementing the transparency laws in a manner conforming to the Digital India Initiative.
PIL for Online RTI Portal in J&K.
Earlier this year, in the backdrop that the RTI machinery of J&K needs overhauling and the Online RTI portal in J&K becoming the need of the hour, a Public Interest Litigation (PIL), titled Mohammad Tuyyab Malik & Anr v/s U.T of J&K, was filed by the author in the J&K High Court. The PIL sought directions to the J&K Govt. regarding the establishment of an Online RTI portal.
The court ordered the Chief Secretary, Govt. of J&K to take call regarding the establishment of the portal. The Govt., in the sub matter of the above PIL, stated that it has decided to register with the Online RTI portal of the Central Govt. and is taking appropriate action in furtherance of the same so as to facilitate the general public to file online RTI Applications and First Appeals.
The govt. in detail stated that it is in the middle of ascertaining the information with regard to Public Offices (for ascertaining the quantum of CPIOs and FAAs), and it has ordered all Administrative Secretaries to furnish the requisite information from their end and the same shall be shared with the Government of India, for registration of the UT of J&K with the Online RTI Portal.
From the intervention of the court and the recent instructions of the Govt. regarding the RTI Act, it seems that the day is not far when the citizens can file RTI applications and appeals online in the Union Territory of J&K. And the same is in the interest of justice & the spirit of transparency laws and will ensure the responsibility and transparency in the system.
Mohammad Tuyyab Malik is the petitioner in PIL for online RTI portal, and a digital rights activist based in Kashmir.
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.