Keeping the SIC headless for a long time has served as a huge blow, and contributed to violation of human rights by limiting accountability of public bodies
The ‘Right to Information’ Act (RTI) empowers a citizen to seek information from public bodies. The act, as the name suggests, makes information a basic right, and it serves well, on paper.
A person seeking information only needs to file an RTI, and it becomes mandatory for the authorities to reply to the person seeking information. The law in letter and spirit might seem like a brilliant idea, its implementation however, has proved to be frustrating for a common citizen.
RTI 2004 was Jammu and Kashmir government’s first step to make information easily available. Owing to its vagueness, it remained largely symbolic.
The Freedom of Information Act passed by the Indian Parliament in 2002, was amended in 2005 into the RTI act as we know today. J&K’s RTI act remained untouched.
With time, as the act gained importance, the need for strengthening it made to the 2008 election manifesto of the National Conference, and was discussed in the state assembly.
Following much debate in the assembly, the act was amended and enacted on March 20, 2009.
Delay and Mis-information
A postal order and an application listing information sought is all that filing an RTI application requires. Expecting a reply within 30 days is ideal. But going by how the departments function, expecting a reply is ideal.
Farman Hameed, 24, filed an RTI with India Post in 2016 to get details on his missing order and hasn’t heard from them since.
The follow up in case of non arrival of information calls for first appeal. However, because of dissuasive behaviour of the Public Information Officer (PIO), he decided never to go for first appeal.
“They laughed it off as if they had seen an RTI for the first time,” recalls Farman.
At the Directorate of Health Services, Srinagar, he was asked to get RTI from State Information commission and also confirm the procedure for filing RTI from there, pointing to the ignorance of the concerned staff regarding the procedure or a deliberate aversion to providing information.
As per the State information commission website, 11 public bodies are yet to appoint their PIOs. Even those that are appointed, often lack information on the provisions of the act.
Lately the 2014 floods have been turned to unquestionable defense for not providing information. The excuse was used to cover up information sought through an RTI on implementation of MGNREGA in Kashmir. The appellant, RTI activist Manan Bukhari, proved the deliberate cover up and unearthed a huge scam worth Rs 90,08,235l in the Rural development department.
“Even in second appeal, I had to fight to prove that their information was incorrect. I had the reports from ground that helped me but for those who do not have any such supporting details, there is no way to verify the information,” says Bukhari.
In November 2013, Bukhari had filed an RTI with State human rights commission seeking information of Pellet Gun fire and Pepper Gas cases. The information from one of the hospitals recorded the total number of affected by pellet victims at 45. Having enlisted all the victims, he found the numbers from RTI contradicting his findings.
The first appeal raised the number to almost 80 and the second appeal to 110.
Suo Motto Disclosures
The need for filing RTI arises only when the information is not made available by the public bodies. Section 4 (1)(b) of the act necessitates disclosures of all relevant facts, policy matters, decisions, budgets and expenditures by public offices.
On March 24, Chief Information Commissioner Khursheed Ahmad Ganai issued a notification asking the PAs to take necessary steps to conform to all the provisions of section 4 of the Act by a deadline of 30th June 2017.
State information commission was set up by the RTI 2009 act, with GR Sufi as first Chief Information commissioner (CIC). The commission is said to be functioning to its quorum fully with a CIC and two information commissioners. The last when the JK SIC was functioning fully was in October 2015 when one of the commissioners retired.
This was followed by the retirement of Sufi in February 2016. For the year ahead, the commission remained headless and in November, after retirement of the lone information commissioner, Nazir Ahmad, it got defunct.
Although most RTI cases are disposed off at the public information office level or the first appeal, those that reach the second appeal are greatly affected due to absence of any commissioner at all.
From 114 appeals being heard in December 2011, the numbers were reduced to 35 in April 2016 and no appeal was heard from December 2016 to February 2017. The numbers directly correlated with the members in commission.
With only Nazir Ahmad left to hear the appeals and complaints for most part of 2016, the delays expected.
Head of Kashmir Rights Monitoring Centre and RTI activist Manan Bukhari alleges that one of his complaint against the High Court is gathering dust in the commission for more than a year now.
He believes that the vacancy in the SIC has been a huge blow to the commission and a violation of human rights. “This indicates the callous attitude of the party in power and the opposition,” says Bukhari.
On exposing a scam on with regard to distribution of monthly relief to Kashmiri Migrants, Abdul Salam Kuchay, 62, a resident of Budgam, was attacked. The state is yet to implement Whistle-Blowers Protection Act (WBP Act 2011). Till its implementation, seeking information is likely to be a threat to the whistleblowers.
Ex-Chief Information Commissioner GR Sufi, while addressing a workshop organized by J&K RTI Movement in collaboration with Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative to celebrate 13 years of RTI in the state, said that he had been pressing all along for the appointment of CIC and commissioners before and after his retirement because without all constituent members, the body has no legal standing.
Today the commission is headed Khursheed A Ganai, Chief information commissioner appointed on February 2017, while the positions of the commissioners lie vacant.
The act does not stipulate any time within which the vacancies need to be filled, a lacuna that Sufi believes to be corrected with an amendment.
Have something to add to this story? Email at firstname.lastname@example.org