RTI in the times of virus

Government Information becoming a Corona Virus Casualty in Kashmir
Representational Pic
Representational Pic

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

Information in Kashmir has become acasualty of hartals, curfews, conflict, floods, unawareness of people and nowCovid-19 crisis. I share the grave concern of people everywhere in the face ofthe COVID-19 pandemic.

There is no doubt that in most of the countriescurrently it would be very difficult for the governments to provide informationto the public but the information in which there is the collective interest ofthe people must be provided to the people in these extraordinary times throughvarious means. The right to Information Act should remain important for holdingpower to account during this extraordinary time. In fact, requests ofinformation related to Covid-19 must be prioritized and there should be no needto file RTI applications related to it. The government must pro-activelydisclose 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 tosurvive the crisis – an infection or otherwise. As an RTI Activist andcampaigner, I argue that the information related to Covid-19 in many casesfalls under life and liberty clause, which means, it is obligatory for theHealth Department as a Public Authority to disclose the information to thepublic within 48 hours. For Journalists disclosure should be made within a day.

The risk of corruption and theft of publicresources is high during crises – people want to take advantage ofemergencies to circumvent procedures and questions about value for money – andthere are many examples. Dr. Raja Muzaffar who is also an RTI Campaignerhas also recommended for maintenance of a separate website for the Covid-19related 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 schemesof government where there was shortage of time to disburse the relief andfunds. 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 crisesand arrest the misdeeds of untrusted officials who are the gatekeepers ofinformation during crisis. On long term impacts, history points to two opposingscenarios-and it seems access to information or lack of it determine how peoplewill react in future. In some cases and countries crises have raised nationalcautiousness resulting in high civic competence- citizens want to trust butverify every action of authorities- e.g. Kenya and South Africa. In othercircumstances the spirit is crushed- don't trust, don't speak and don't doanything. Examples are also very many.

The scale and severity of the Covid-19pandemic clearly rises to the level of a public health threat that couldjustify restrictions on certain rights, e.g. those that result from theimposition of quarantine or isolation limiting freedom of movement. At the sametime, careful attention to human rights such as non-discrimination and humanrights principles e.g. transparency and respect for human dignity can foster aneffective response during the turmoil and disruption that inevitably results intimes of crisis and limit the harms that can come from the imposition of overlybroad measures that do not meet the above criteria. J&K RTI Foundationexpresses concern about the prospects for more corruption in these times. It isessential that transparency, openness and integrity are maintained and extendedacross the health sector.

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

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