RTI @ Eight: A Review

by Er Irfan Banka

On March 20, 2017, the Jammu & Kashmir Right to Information Act 2009 completes its eighth year of enactment. 20th of March 2017 is hence being celebrated as RTI Day by the stakeholders of RTI particularly the RTI Activists belonging to different RTI based groups in the state. J&K RTI Foundation is also participating in the celebration of RTI day.

This is not the first time when the people themselves are trying to strengthen and bring awareness of RTI in Jammu and Kashmir, but has its roots long before when the RTI Act was enacted in 2009.

If we go into the history of the Right to Information culture in the country, we will find that people have always played a great role in the strengthening of RTI in the state. It was only after a continuing and tireless struggle by the local civil society members and the great role played of some prominent personalities like Wajaha tHabibullah, Arvind Kejriwal, Aruna Roy, Maja Daruwala, Venkatesh Nayak, our current State Chief Information Commissioner Khursheed Ahmad Ganie and so on …., that the revolutionary and most people friendly RTI Act 2009 was enacted by the State Legislature which is by and large a replica of the Central RTI Act 2005.

At present, the RTI Activists are demanding the restoration of RTI Rules 2010 which the government has not been doing since 2012. Many Activists from both Jammu and Kashmir Region have even protested for this and also for the appointment of Information Commissioners in J&K SIC. Although we have CIC now but the other two Information Commissioners are yet to be appointed.

The Jammu and Kashmir RTI Act has empowered the people and has made the rights of people more enforceable and approachable be it economic, social or political. But if a thorough and deep analysis is made, one will say that the Act is confined either to the government officials or the activists, the reasons being non-awareness of the common man, for whom the Act would have been very much beneficial. As usual, the stakeholders of RTI and the activists who find the Act as one of the potent tools to curb the spate of corruption in Jammu Kashmir have analysed and found the government’s irresponsive attitude towards the effective implementation of the Act this year also.

The government may claim of well-planned programmes, schemes, and policies of economic development as well as social upliftment but due to lack of authentic and timely information, people do not avail of their benefits. They are often compelled to take recourse to corrupt means at the behest of touts and other undesirable elements to know and derive benefits from such programmes.

Government and the public authorities have again failed to implement the Act in an effective way. No doubt in the past, the J&K State Information Commission had issued orders and correspondence was made, pressing for the implementation of the Act and the compliance of the public authorities, but still there is lack of information on the websites of the government departments.

Non-maintenance and the digitalization of records are the biggest challenges before the right to information movement in the state. There are still many departments who don’t have websites yet. Even our administrative departments have not uploaded complete information obligatory under Section 4 of the JK RTI Act on their websites. There has been poor response from the Public Authorities and the Government as well. Even on the website of J&K SIC itself, there are a lot of loopholes related to disclosures under Section 4 of RTI Act. The last annual report available on JK SIC website is of 2013-14 and no further reports are available for public access. Further the J&K SIC is not holding any meetings with the members of Civil Society. According to their report of 2013-14 only one meeting was held with the Civil Society Organizations in 2013-14.The report also says that only 0.06% of the total RTI Applications filed were followed by first appeal and is said to be a success. But as per our analysis it is overall a failure as 95 percent of people either don’t know how to file first appeal or are not able to locate FAA or are fed up due to non-compliance at the PIO level.

Recommendations

Following recommendations have been received from different Activists:

  1. The people from rural areas still don’t know how to file an RTI Application and even if somebody files his process stops at the appealing level. Activists believe that 90 percent of the filing will fall if Section 4 of the Act is implemented and if Section 23 is followed, a good majority of public will get aware of the Act. Need of the hour is to implement Section 4 from CM to Panchayat level and there needs to be an impressive compliance mechanism for its implementation.
  1. The PIOs need to be trained in an efficient way and erring officials need to be treated according to the law. The PIOs are usually qualified people, so there is no excuse of training if one thinks deeply. Only one thing that needs to be done is to issue orders and guidelines for PIOs/APIOs to go through the soft copy of the JK RTI Act available online on Internet and get it implemented in true spirit in a time bound compliance mechanism.
  1. Digitalisation of records is another important point under Section 4 of the Act. Once the digitalization of the records is done and the complete information is made available of the internet people who have the access to internet can easily go through it. It will eradicate non-sense words like “blackmailing” as there would be no scope of hide and seek. Objective of transparency will be achieved up to a large extent.
  1. Last year in February, the JK SIC opened a link on its website through which we can make second appeals/complaints online. Similarly, there needs to be a link through which one can file RTI application and first appeal and the same may be made available online. And after the response comes, same may be put on the website. This will also minimize the number of RTI filings and also the chances of harassment/killing of RTI Applicants and so called “blackmailing” by RTI applicants.
  1. Common Service Centres (CSCs) is a scheme of the Government of India under which 1,00,000 CSCs are being created. This means that there would be approximately one CSC for every six villages. The government should use these CSCs to collect applications (to act as APIO, as per section 5(2)) and facilitate citizens in filing RTI Applications.
  1. Department of Posts (GoI) is already a designated APIO for central government. It is suggested that the State governments also accord to status of APIO to post offices and designate staff to assist citizens in drafting and forwarding the applications/appeals.
  1. Complaints are often that the postal orders are not available readily at post offices, so if RTI envelopes with an inbuilt cost of application fee are introduces, the process of payment of application fee by applicants will be easier.

Conclusion

RTI is landmark legislation as it was enacted after a sustained demand and struggle from the grassroots level. It empowered ordinary citizen to question government accustomed to function in unbreachable secrecy. Yet, a lot remains to be done to make transparency and accountability a regular feature of governance in Jammu and Kashmir. The urban-rural divide in its access contradicts its foremost objective of bringing information and thus, empowerment to the masses at grassroots level. The lack of reforms denies citizens the opportunity to make governance people-centric. Given that the weakness of the RTI lies in its weak implementation, the next phase of RTI act needs to focus on increasing the authority of State Information Commission in order to set in motion the practical regime of RTI by ensuring much needed compliance from government agencies. We now know that the government has failed as far as the awareness of the Act is concerned, hence the NGOs, students, RTI Activists and all other conscious people must organize seminars, programs etc and discuss the RTI Act and recommend its wider use so as to make it more familiar in resolving public grievances.

(Author is chairman of RTI foundation. Views expression in the article are his personal.)

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