By Irfan Banka
From the preamble of the J&K RTI Act, 2009, it is clear that the major objectives of the Act are greater transparency in functioning of public authorities, improvement in accountability and performance of the government, Promotion of partnership between citizens and the government in the decision-making process; and reduction in corruption in government departments.
Section 3 of the J&K RTI Act 2009 says: “Subject to the provisions of the Act, every person residing in the State shall have the right to information.” It casts an obligation on Public Authorities to grant access to information and to publish certain categories of information within 120 days of the enactment. The responsibility about suo moto disclosure/publication by public authorities has been considerably enlarged. Under Section 2 of J&K RTI Act, 2009, the right to information includes the following rights:
1. Right to inspect work, documents, records
2. Right to take notes. Extracts or certified copies of documents or records
3. Right to take certified samples of material
4. Right to obtain information in the form of diskettes, floppies, tapes, video cassettes or in any other electronic mode or through printouts where such information is stored in a computer or in any other device
Brief History of the Act in J&K:
March 20th was the seventh anniversary of the enactment of J&K RTI Act 2009. However, we are celebrating the 12th year of the RTI in J&K, since it was introduced here in 2004 as “The Jammu and Kashmir Right to Information Act, 2004”(the Act that was modeled on the Freedom of Information Act passed by Parliament in 2002). After the introduction of J&K RTI Act 2004, civil society especially the J&K RTI Movement and some prominent activists from J&K and outside J&K carried out a strong and successful campaigning to strengthen the RTI Act in J&K and their efforts brought a J&K RTI Act 2009 that wasstronger than the central RTI Act 2005. The RTI rules were published in 2010 which were further replaced in 2012 with rules modeled on central RTI rules.
Status of RTI Act:
The Act has empowered the people and has made rights of people, in all spheres whether it is economic, social or political more enforceable and approachable. But if a thorough and deep analysis is made, one will say that the Act is confined either to the government or activists, the reasons being non-awareness of the people, for whom the Act would have been beneficial.
As usual, the stakeholders especially the Mass RTI Movement of J&K and the activists who find the Act as a potent tool to curb the spate of corruption in the state, have analysed and found the government irresponsive towards the effective implementation of the Act this year also. The government may claim 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 the 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 public authorities have again failed to implement the Act in an effective way. No doubt, the J&K State Information Commission has issued orders and communications have been made, pressing for the implementation of the Act and the compliance of public authorities, but there is still a lack of information on the websites of government departments. Non-maintenance and the digitalisation of records are the biggest challenges facing the right to information movement in the state. There are still many departments that don’t have websites. Even our administrative departments have not uploaded complete information obligatory under Section 4 of the J&K RTI Act on their websites.
The State Information Commission is itself in a state of, well, complexity. There is only one State Information Commissioner at the J&K SIC and the other two posts i.e. State Chief Information Commissioner and State Information Commissioner are vacant.
Civil society has been carrying out a sensitisation and public awareness drive right from the enactment of the RTI Act in J&K in 2004. This year, from 19th of March, RTI week is celebrated with the involvement of common masses. The main aim behind this is to publicise the Act since the government has failed in doing it so far. J&K RTI Movement is conducting about a dozen workshops/training programmes in the month of March 2016, the grand one was on 20th of March, 2016 at the Centre for Central Asian Studies, University of Kashmir. Besides, the following recommendations from different people have been received:
1. People from rural areas still don’t know how to file an RTI Application and even if somebody files, the process stops at the appealing level. Activists believe that 90% of the filing will fall if Section 4 of the Act is implemented and if Section 23 is followed, a majority of the public will become aware of the Act. The 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.
2. 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 on training. There must be orders and guidelines for PIOs/APIOs to go through the soft copy of the J&K RTI Act available online and get it implemented in a true spirit in a time-bound compliance mechanism.
3. Digitalisation of records is another important point under Section 4 of the Act. Once the digitalisation of records is done and the complete information is made available, people who have access to the internet can easily go through it. It will eradicate “blackmailing” as there would be no scope of “hide and seek”. The objective of transparency will be achieved to a large extent.
4. Recently, the J&K SIC has 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 an RTI application and first appeal. And after the reply comes, the same may be put on the website. This will also minimise the number of RTI filings and also the chances of harassment/killing of RTI applicants and so-called “blackmailing” by RTI applicants.
5. 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 will be approximately 1 CSC for every 6 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.
6. Department of Posts (GoI) is already a designated APIO for the central government. It is suggested that state governments also accord status of APIO to post offices and designate staff to assist citizens in drafting and forwarding the applications/appeals.
7. There are often complaints that Postal Orders are not available readily at Post Offices, so if RTI envelopes with an in-built cost of application fee are introduced, the process of payment of application fee by applicants will be easier.
—The writer is with the J&K RTI Movement