Delinquent FAAs

People in the State welcomed the Right to Information Act when the legislature passed it some years ago. Media highlighted the benefits of the Act to the administration and to the public in general. An idea kept lurking in everybody’s mind that important and sensitive information remains denied to the people. After passing the Act they were assured that the Government shall disclose the information when approached. Entire emphasis was on transparency. How far has people’s expectation come true, is a moot point.
In its latest report, the State Information Commission has opened the implementation part of the RTI Act for public debate and guidance to make the Act effective. It has raised interesting questions. It begins with a warning that desired results, as stated in the preamble to the Act cannot be achieved until there is prompt, quick and proper administrative action. Therefore, the main area of debate that should take place is the attitude of the administration towards conceding the right to the people in letter and in spirit. Of course, in the light of the provisions of the RTI Act, the State has taken a number of steps in the proposed direction and these have yielded good and helpful results. However, notwithstanding some achievements made, there is lot more that remains to be done if the spirit of the Act is to work in right earnest.
The report regrets the attitude of the First Appellate Authority in cases where action is needed after divulging the information. When a case of violation of rules or administrative mismanagement is revealed under RTI and the applicant seeks redress, the Department concerned is supposed to initiate preliminary inquiry and provide Information Commission with a report on its findings. In this way, the departmental authority becomes the First Appellate Authority (FAA) and, of course, the fundamental cog in the transparency mechanism. Not only the Commission, but also the public at large expects the FAA to seriously take its job of conducting inquiry and thus assure that it sticks to the rule of transparency. Therefore, any success in pursuing the matter depends on how effective and expeditious the administration is. This is the crux of the matter highlighted by the Information Commission in its report. After all the First Appellate Authority is an important link in the appellate mechanism set out in the Act. The report regrets that First Appellate Authorities (FAAs) are yet not sensitive towards discharging the statutory duties cast upon them to adjudicate first appeals.  When the FAA is not discharging its duty effectively, the matter comes to the Second Appellate Authority, which is the Information Commission. The Commission’s report specifically suggests that there is a lacuna in the Act, which should be set right through proper legislation.  FAAs are not performing their quasi-judicial duties cast upon them. It gives rise to increased number of complaints and second appeals before the Commission.  Under Section 16(1) of the Act, every public authority has to designate FAA for efficient and speedy disposal of complaints. In                          this context the Commission has rightly suggested various steps the Government should take with a view to strengthen implementation of the RTI Act. For example, every Administrative Department is enjoined under   Section 22 to collect at its own level, quarterly/annual return as per the devised format in relation to the public authorities within their jurisdiction.  They have to furnish the same in a consolidated form to the J&K State Information Commission at the end of each quarter and at the end of financial year. The Commission suggests that all District Commissioners should also adopt this practice if the intention is to make information transparent.
We like to bring to the notice of our readers that the State Information Commission cannot be faulted for complaining against the intentions of the administration to downplay the importance of the Right to Information in a manner that the jurisdiction of Information Commission is curtailed. Why should it happen so is not clear? Interestingly, the non-seriousness of FAAs is mainly because of legal lacunae in the J&K Right to Information Act. In 2012, the Government changed its major provisions despite voices to the contrary. In the original Act, there was a provision whereby Chief Information Commission had the powers to write to the Government or the Minister concerned for action against First Appellate Authority for not discharging statutory duties. This clause stands removed in the present Act and rules.  Actually, the Government should have extended the powers and jurisdiction of Information Commission and not curtailed them.
In summing up the debate, we shall have to focus on the main concern of the society, which is transparency. Just creating Information Commission and then withholding necessarily logistical support that would make it effective does not serve any purpose. The Information Commission cannot do anything as long as it is toothless. Without full cooperation from the administrative units, its work cannot move forward. Therefore, it is the duty of the Government to make all administrative departments responsive to the functioning of the Information Commission. Right to information is the democratic right of the people and no structure of the Government can refuse them this right. We should never ignore the positive aspect of the Act and we have many examples in which the Act, when implemented in letter and in spirit, has brought good gains for the applicants. The main idea behind this crucial enactment is to strengthen democratic process, make path smooth for good governance, remove the difficulties of the masses of people and carry the State to a better and prosperous future. The administration has to fear nothing by sharing information with the people. In fact, this sharing gives the administration strength and self-confidence.
The report of the State Information Commission has to be taken in positive terms and its suggestive and corrective approach has to be recognized by the administration. There is no question of confrontational attitude by the Commission. It seeks cooperation of the administration and the civil society and by helping it we help ourselves.


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