Dr Raja Muzaffar Bhat
Union Minister in Prime Ministers Office (PMO) Dr Jitendra Singh while addressing 14th special general body meeting of National Federation of Information Commissions of India (NFICI) in New Delhi recently said that post article 370 abrogation even the non -domicile and non- state subjects of Jammu & Kashmir were entitled to file applications under Right to Information Act (RTI) and seek information from public authorities. Dr Singh who is also the minister in-charge Department of Personnel and Trainings (DoPT) which looks after RTI related issues said :
“Consequent to the passing of J&K Reorganisation Act 2019, the J&K Right to Information Act 2009 and the Rules there under have since been repealed and the Central Right to Information Act 2005 and the Rules there under were enforced from October 31, 2019. As a consequence to this, the difference now is that, unlike in the past, even a non-domicile or a non-state subject of Jammu & Kashmir is entitled to file RTI related to UT issues or agencies.”
The Union Minister lauded the Central Information Commission (CIC) for achieving consistent decline in pendency with corresponding rise in disposal of the Right to Information (RTI) appeals. He said that he was pleased to note that the pendency reduced from about 40,000 cases last year to around 27,000 cases at present, while the disposal of cases increased from 17017 in 2020-21 to 28901 in 2021-22.
Dr Jitendra Sing further said that ever since the Modi Government came to power in 2014, transparency, accountability and citizen-centricity became the hallmark of the governance model.
The Jammu & Kashmir RTI Act 2009 got automatically repealed along with dozens of central laws when article 370 was read down. The RTI Act 2005 (central law) was extended to J&K with effect from Oct 31st 2019. Under this act there is a provision for anyone to seek information in any state or UT. This is not a new thing that has been granted to people living outside J&K. Even in Bodoland autonomous area , people of any state or UT in country can seek information under RTI Act 2005. Under RTI Act 2005 there is a provision of setting up of State Information Commissions (SIC) in states where RTI related appeals and complaints are heard. J&K also had the State Information Commission (JKSIC) constituted under the erstwhile act. This commission was closed after article 370 abrogation and since then we have no information commission in place as J&K is no more a state. This is the biggest lacuna of extension of RTI Act 2005 in J&K. The PIOs are taking undue advantage of the closure of the JKSIC and treat the right to information very casually, for they know they will not be taken to task.
For almost 3 years , government officials have been non-responsive, and this is especially true for requests made under the RTI Act, 2005. The government has also failed to undertake sensitisation workshops for designated Public Information Officers (PIOs) or First Appellate Authorities (FAAs). These officers were already familiar with the state RTI Act of 2009, but there are some differences between that repealed law and the 2005 RTI Act, which has now been applied to Jammu and Kashmir.
PIOs are taking undue advantage of the closure of the JKSIC and treat the right to information very casually, for they know they will not be taken to task.
Appeals before CIC
The aggrieved people would file 2nd appeal before the erstwhile State Information Commission (JKSIC) if the information was denied by a PIO or the First Appellate Authority (FAA) would not do justice with RTI applicants. The said commission would dispose of the appeal in 60 to 120 days only as there was legal provision in the repealed J&K RTI Act 2009. This lacuna was found in RTI Act 2005 and drafting committee of J&K RTI Act 2009 had kept this thing into consideration especially. Infact former Central Chief Information Commissioner Wajahat Habibullah had voiced for these insertions in the J&K Law and suggested the same to J&K Govt when the RTI bill was being drafted. Infact Jammu & Kashmir RTI Movement was fully involved in that process.
There is no such provision binding the CIC or the SICs in other states (under RTI Act, 2005). It is on this count that the now-repealed 2009 Act was considered a more progressive law than the Jammu and Kashmir RTI Act, 2009.How can people living in remote areas of Jammu, Kashmir, or Ladakh approach the CIC in the Capital? Only educated and empowered people approach the CIC now, whereas in the past even illiterate folk would approach the JKSIC.
I had personally filed 3 appeals in Central Information Commission (CIC) New Delhi in December 2020 and they were listed for hearing after 13 to 14 months ? To make people wait for a year or more to get information about, say, beneficiaries under the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana (PMAY), MG-NREGS works, or lavatories constructed under the Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM) is unjustified. How can aggrieved people be made to wait for 1 ½ years to get information related to selection by JKSSB or JKPSC ? During the last 2 years I haven’t heard a single case wherein the Central Information Commission (CIC) has slapped a penalty on erring Govt officers from J&K UT ? This was not the case in the past as J&K State Information Commission was tough on Govt officials denying information to citizens. Former Chief Information Commissioners G R Sufi or Khurshid Ganai were people of great stature who tried their best to deliver and gave some landmark judgments like bringing J&K Bank under RTI ambit or taking JKPSC to task by allowing RTI applicants to check their answer scripts. All that is history now ?
No respect for LGs office
Mudaser Ahmad Yatoo an RTI activist wanted information about the action taken by Govt against a Sarpanch and other members of Panchayat halqa Jedden Kutabal in block Chadoora (now Surasyar) who had embezzled money meant for homeless people under Indira Awas Yojna (IAY) now called PMAY.
Mudaser in February this year filed an application directly in the office of Lt Governor at Raj Bhavan Jammu as he apprehended the local BDO’s office or DC office Budgam would not provide the same. The LGs secretariat immediately forwarded Mudaser’s application under section 6 (3) of RTI Act 2005 to the Rural Development Department Civil Secretariat on 22.02.2022 vide communication No: LGS-3(RTI Act) X/2022/ 1090-91.
The designated Central Public Information Officer (CPIO) in Rural Dev Department Dr Udham Das forwarded the same application to Director Rural Development Kashmir , Srinagar on 3.3.2022. After this Mudaser is unaware what happened to his RTI application. Till date the department hasn’t bothered to share the information nor has the RTI application been forwarded to ACD Budgam or BDO concerned. Mudaser wanted to know whether the Sarpanch had deposited the embezzled money back into the BDO Chadoora’s account or not ? From the last 4 months Mudaser is waiting for the information. It is a matter of serious concern that lower rung offices have no respect for the office of Lieutenant Governors Secretariat ? One can imagine how an ordinary citizens would be treated by these officials ? I am sure when the case against the Directorate of Rural Development Kashmir will be filed in CIC New Delhi , the PIO won’t be taken to task at all by the commission .
PMs Ujjwala scam & LGs intervention
As reported already it took months for the PIO of Lt Governor’s office to dispose of an RTI application of Mushtaq Ahmad Lone R/O Batwodder Surasyar District Budgam. Mushaq wanted action taken by LG’s office on the announcement made by Shri Manoj Sinha LG regarding the PM’s Ujjwala scam in Budgam. The Lt Governor during his Awam ki Awaz programme last November had assured Mushtaq that action would be taken against erring gas agencies who had looted people by taking money from them for free gas connections as Mushtaq brought the matter into his notice.
When no action was taken for 3 months , Mushtaq had to file an RTI in the Lt Governor’s Office (Raj Bhavan). It took months to get the application disposed off. The officers were infact very cooperative later on when they came to know the reply had not been provided on time. The LG’s office some months back shot letters to Govt for taking action against erring gas agencies but till date no action has been taken to recover the looted money ? The gas agencies were only penalised with Rs 79,000 and Rs 29,000. This is the case when the highest authority of the state is asking for a probe and action , now one can imagine what is the condition in other Govt offices ?
At a time when the residents of Jammu & Kashmir are denied information under RTI on basic issues like Bijli, Pani or Sadak or LGP gas how can we expect non J&K residents will get information by filing applications through speed post. Technically non residents and even local residents should have been given the facility to file online RTI applications , but nobody is taking up those issues inspite of the fact that I took up the matter with Secretary IT J&K Govt last year. The officer had assured me that within a month or so people would get this facility but till date nothing has happened ? Is mere giving the benefits of filing an RTI application enough ? The public authorities must also respond with a reply which isn’t happening in J&K since central law became applicable here. Dr Jitendra Singh must stress on ensuring applications under RTI Act are disposed off as well.
(The author is Founder & Chairman Jammu & Kashmir RTI Movement )
Dr Raja Muzaffar Bhat