Why is RTI losing its sheen in J&K ?

Dr Raja Muzaffar Bhat
When Afroza could not get her Ultrasonography (USG) test done at the Government Sub District Hospital (SDH) Chadoora some months back , she had to pay Rs 700 at a private diagnostic center. At Government SDH she had to pay only Rs 150 for the USG. Earlier she was also denied a dental treatment in the same Govt hospital citing reasons of COVID 19 pandemic but when same dentists were treating patients at private clinics, Afroza’s husband Mushtaq Ahmad then decided to seek a detailed information from Government under the Right to Information Act 2005 (RTI Act 2005). RTI Act 2005 is applicable in J&K from October 31st last year after Article 370 was abrogated. Before that J&K RTI Act 2009 was in operation across J&K and Ladakh but this law was repealed along with dozens of State laws under J&K Reorganisation Act 2019.
Afroza’s husband Mushtaq Ahmad is a marginal farmer from the Bonen Batwodder village of Chadoora. He is known for his work on transparency and good governance vis a vis several flagship schemes. He has worked a lot on streamlining the public distribution system and creating digital literacy in his area. With an aim of getting the factual details , he filed an application under RTI Act 2oo5 in Deputy Commissioner’s office Budgam on September 2nd 2020 through speed post. Till date Mushtaq hasn’t got any response. He even filed the requisite 1st appeal before First Appellate Authority (FAA) i.e. Additional Deputy Commissioner (ADC) but the same has not been adjudicated. Now he plans to file 2nd appeal before the Central Information Commission (CIC) New Delhi , but Mushtaq is worried that he would have to wait for several months. It takes almost 6 months to 9 months for CIC to list an appeal as there are thousands of pending appeals in CIC.
Information Sought from DC Budgam
Mushtaq through his RTI application sought information on USG, X-rays , ECG and blood tests done in Govt hospitals of Budgam and revenue generated out of it during 2019 and 2020 . In addition, he sought details about surgeries done in Govt hospitals in district Budgam during 2019 and 2020. Mushtaq also wanted details of COVID 19 funds allocated to district Budgam and its utilization plus funds spent on Rashtriya Bal Swasthya Karyakram (RBSK)
” People from economically weaker sections go to Govt hospitals with the hope that they will get free or subsidized treatment and investigations, but under the garb of COVID 19 the doctors refuse to do several investigations like USGs, Dental X-rays , ECG etc. Before COVID 19 pandemic also patients would suffer . For ordinary investigations patients are referred to private labs who give the commission to doctors in Govt hospitals. Even after 9 months post COVID 19 lockdown the investigations and dental treatments are not done in many Govt hospitals. Govt is paying hefty salaries to medical officers , surgeons and gynecologists posted in Govt hospitals of Jammu & Kashmir or even Ladakh , but poor people are neither operated nor are cesarean surgeries done in most of the hospitals, especially from the last 8 to 9 months” said Mushtaq Ahmad.
The Government provides money for treatment of children under Rashtriya Bal Swasthya Karyakram (RBSK) , but people in villages and towns still take their children to private hospitals for surgeries and other treatments . In most of these the parents are very poor and marginalized. Mushtaq sought details about the implementation of this scheme as well in his village and the amount of money allocated to Govt dispensaries and hospitals under COVID-19.
Denial of Information
The District Administration has categorically denied the information which was to be provided within 30 days and now more than 90 days (3 months) have lapsed. Mushtaq filed an appeal before the First Appellate Authority (FAA) in DC office Budgam but that too hasn’t been disposed off. I am sure the officer who has been charged with the duty of First Appellate Authority (FAA) is himself unaware of his job. More than a year back when J&K RTI Act 2009 was in operation the Govt officials would never dare not to respond to RTI applicants. The officials would provide incomplete information , but they would think several times before not responding to information seekers. The officials were scared of JK RTI Act 2009 and the reason is that J&K had an independent State Information Commission (SIC) where RTI appeals and complaints would be filed against erring Public Information Officers (PIO’s).
CIC bench in J&K
The J&K State Information Commission (SIC) had the powers to penalize Public Information Officers (PIOs). SIC would issue summons and notices to PIO’s or even First Appellate Authorities (FAA’s). But now this is not possible as SIC has been shut down post 370 abrogation. J&K has been clubbed with Central Information Commission (CIC) New Delhi. How can ordinary villagers reach out to CIC ? We urgently need a circuit bench of CIC in J&K and Ladakh on the pattern of Central Administrative Tribunal (CAT). CIC commissioner must hear RTI appeals and complaints on a rotational basis in Srinagar , Jammu and Ladakh. I have been urging authorities about this in the past also, but there is no response from the Government till date.
Situation in Ladakh
Situation in Ladakh vis a vis RTI implementation is much worse. Local activists and RTI applicants allege that post article 370 abrogation the Govt officials in Ladakh have started avoiding giving reply to applications filed under RTI Act 2005. Ahsan Ali a social activist from GonkhapaKargil says that post 370 abrogation the post offices in Kargil don’t even sell Rs 10 Indian Postal Orders (PIOs) which are used as RTI application fees. He also alleges that local engineers of Pradhan Mantri Grameen SadakYojna (PMGSY) are denying information about a road project and the RTI appeal in this regard was transferred from J&K SIC to Central Information Commission (CIC) New Delhi last year but till date he hasn’t got any justice from CIC. In April 2019 Ahsan Ali filed an RTI application in the office of Executive Engineer PMGSY Kargil to seek information about a 7 kms road project from Stakchay to Gonkhapa. Till date he hasn’t been provided information . Ahsan Ali filed 1st appeal before Superintending Engineer PMGSY Ladakh and then 2nd appeal in JK State Information Commission (SIC). He was sure to get justice from J&K SIC but during the same time when the case was to be listed around August 1stweek in 2019 the Article 370 was abrogated. Ahsan Ali’s appeal filed in J&K SIC was transferred to CIC New Delhi. Till date the appeal hasn’t been listed at CIC.
JK RTI Act was stronger
Under the RTI Act 2005 there is no time-frame to dispose of the 2nd appeal when it is filed before the State Information Commission (SIC) or the Central Information Commission (CIC) whatever the case may be. However under the provisions of J&K RTI Act of 2009 (now repealed) it was mandatory for the J&K State Information Commission (JK SIC) to dispose of the appeal within a period of 60 days or maximum 120 days. This time-bound legal provision helped the appellants and there were very few pendencies in the J & K State Information Commission. In addition to it under the J&K RTI Act 2009 (now repealed) the First Appellate Authority (FAA) was empowered enough to recommend the Public Information Officer (PIO) for penalty by simply writing to the State Information Commission (SIC). The J&K State Chief Information Commissioner (SCIC) was of the rank and status of a Supreme Court Judge and two other commissioners were equivalent to State Chief Secretary. This ensured non -interference of Govt in the affairs of J&K SIC.
No SIC in J&K
Post abrogation of article 370 J&K is now a Union Territory (UT) and in UT’s there is no provision of an independent State Information Commission (SIC) which is like a central nervous system (CNS) of RTI law. J&K’s State Information Commission was shut down after October 31st 2019. J&K plus Ladakh which is such a huge area have now been clubbed with Central Information Commission (CIC) New Delhi which is already overburdened with RTI appeals and complaints. All the pending cases in J&K SIC were transferred to CIC New Delhi last year but hardly anybody is getting justice as the cases are not even listed due to thousands of appeals already pending there. The Govt officials are taking an undue advantage of these developments and they too have started denying information to people under RTI.
As per the preamble of RTI Act 2005 citizens shall have the right to secure access to the information to promote transparency , to contain corruption and to hold Governments accountable. In Jammu & Kashmir or Ladakh we cannot achieve these targets under RTI Act 2005. The reason is sudden drop in filing of RTI applications. People are confused. I get calls almost every-day. People tell me that Govt officials are demoralizing them. Information is being denied and there are no institutions available locally where RTI appeals could be filed. How can aggrieved RTI information seekers in Kargil or Kupwara approach CIC New Delhi with an appeal ? Most of the people in rural areas lack digital literacy , they can’t file online appeals plus we only have 2G internet service available. As already mentioned a special bench of CIC for J&K and Ladakh should be set up. Govt must involve NGO’s for creating RTI awareness and to create RTI helplines. Training programmes must be held for Govt officials and voluntary disclosure of information should be made through official Govt websites as mandated under section 4 of RTI Act 2005.