Edit & Opinion

Jammu & Kashmir needs dedicated bench of CIC

Finally, Central Information Commission (CIC) has decided to start hearing cases of Right to Information (RTI) appeals and complaints from the Union Territories of Jammu & Kashmir and Ladakh with effect from May 15. This was disclosed by Union Minister of State (MoS) in Prime Ministers Office (PMO) Dr Jitendra Singh last week after he had a detailed meeting with Central Chief Information Commissioner Mr Bimal Julka in New Delhi.

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Reportedly senior-most Information Commissioner at Central Information Commission (CIC) New Delhi Mr D P Sinha has been entrusted to hear the RTI appeals/complaints from the UTs of J&K and Ladakh. Dr Singh made it clear that appellants and complainants from J&K and Ladakh can file RTI applications from home and no one will have to travel outside the UT for filing of RTI or for hearing at the commission at any stage of the entire process. He further said that this will help the UTs of J&K and Ladakh to usher in a new culture of “Justice from Home”. Within a day of this announcement by Dr Jitendra Singh, Central Information Commission (CIC) came up with another idea by saying that RTI appellants and complainants will have to visit District headquarters (NIC Centers) for appeal hearings before CIC through a video conferencing. This has raised a question mark on the idea of “Justice from Home”?

Case hearing from Home
Mr. Jitendra Singh as per the news-reports said that RTI appellants and complainants from J&K and Ladakh could file the first appeal before the designated officers (First Appellate Authorities -FAAs) and can avail the facility of online hearing from home for the second appeal or complaint before the CIC New Delhi. He added that the RTI applicants can file their applications online anytime during the 24 hours, day or night, and from anywhere including from home. Mr Singh who is the Minister in PMO also informed through press briefing that any citizen of India can now file an RTI pertaining to matters related to J&K and Ladakh, which was earlier reserved only for domicile citizens of the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir in view of J&K RTI Act 2009 which stands repealed post abrogation of article 370.

LG’s interaction with CIC
After having a detailed meeting with Dr. Jitendra Singh MoS in PMO last week, the Central Chief Information Commissioner Mr. Bimal Julka had a meeting with Lieutenant Governor Girish Chandra Murmu through a video conference. This was a follow-up meeting wherein threadbare discussion was held on the transfer of pending complaints and appeals with erstwhile J&K State Information Commission (SIC) to the Central Information Commission, New Delhi. Information Commissioner at CIC D.P Sinha who looks after RTI appeals and complaints from Union Territories (UTs) had also joined the discussion. BVR Subrahmanyam, Chief Secretary J&K, Farooq Ahmad Lone Administrative Secretary in-charge of General Administration Department (GAD), Achal Sethi, Secretary to Government, Law Department were also present in the meeting. During the meeting, it was decided that CIC will hear complaints and appeals from J&K and National Informatics Centers (NICs) across J&K would host the Audio/Visual interactions during the proceedings. CIC commissioners informed LG Mr. Murmu and Chief Secretary that all the RTI complainants and appellants could visit the NIC Centers of their respective districts for the hearings. This has created a little confusion among RTI appellants and complainants. Dr Jitendra Singh had earlier said that appellants and complainants could appear for such hearings from their home? Regarding the transfer of RTI appeal and complaint files from J&K to CIC New Delhi Lt Governor Mr. G C Murmu assured CIC Mr. Bimal Julka that same would reach the Commission’s office within a week. It is an irony that to date these 250 cases approximately (appeals and complaints) have not been transferred to CIC and aggrieved appellants and complainants are denied justice from Oct 31st, 2019? Pertinently CIC hears aggrieved persons through appeals and complaints when they are denied information by the Public Information Officers (PIOs) and don’t get satisfied even after filing the first appeal before senior officers also called First Appellate Authorities (FAAs)

Challenges ahead
Having actively been involved with the Right to Information Movement in Jammu & Kashmir for the last 15 years, I have several apprehensions vis a vis implementation of the Central RTI Act 2005 in J&K. This needs to be addressed by J&K Government, DoPT, and Central Information Commission (CIC) both. Unless the Government does not hold consultation with state holders like civil society groups, RTI activists and people involved in RTI activism, the Government cannot reach out to any fruitful conclusion. The best thing to address this complicated issue is to restore back J&K RTI Act 2009 wherein there is a provision of the State Information Commission (SIC). If this can’t be done at this point of time then a separate bench of Central Information Commission has to be created for J&K and Ladakh which would be on the move going district to district for RTI appeal and complaint hearings. The Commissioner’s office should be located in Jammu, Srinagar, and Ladakh. In-fact the job should be entrusted to two Information Commissioners.

Challenge No 1. 
As Dr. Jitendra Singh said that people can seek information from Government or file first appeal sitting at home, is that possible in J&K in the present scenario? Not even a single public authority in J&K receives online RTI applications. If the applicant plans to file an RTI application through an online portal with Central Government Ministry which can then be forwarded to the J&K Government under section 6 (3) of RTI Act 2005, is all this possible with 2G internet Network in J&K? The online RTI portal is so complicated especially the RTI text column that even highly educated people get confused. How can ordinary citizens avail the benefits of online RTI service? To address this UT’s of J&K and Ladakh must without any delay start receiving RTI applications through their own online RTI portals like many other States and UT’s do. It is very complicated to get information from J&K Government by routing the applications through Central Government Ministries and Department’s as suggested by Dr Jitendra Singh. He needs to again discuss this with Department of Personnel and Training’s (DoPT) under PMO which infact is under his control.

Challenge No 2. 
Mr. D P Sinha Information Commissioner in-charge of Union Territories (UTs) is now entrusted to hear appeals and complaints from UTs of J&K and Ladakh in addition to other UTs. How can Mr. Sinha do justice with his job as J&K and Ladakh has a population of around 1.35 Crore and people in large numbers use RTI Act? Under the J&K RTI Act 2009 (now repealed) we had a provision three Information Commissioners (one Chief and two commissioners) and in spite of that appellants and complainants were not satisfied in view of long waits. How can one Information Commissioner at CIC do justice with people of J&K , Ladakh and other UT’s? This will be completely a mockery and appellants/complainant from J&K and Ladakh will hardly get justice from Central Information Commission (CIC) and corrupt officials will continue to suck the blood of poor people as they would have least accountability under the existing system. By repealing J&K RTI Act 2009, the Government of India has complicated this whole issue. If 166 other J&K laws including J&K Public Services Guarantee Act (PSGA) could be protected under J&K Re-organisation Act 2019 post abrogation of article 370, why was not J&K RTI Act 2009 also given similar protection? Govt must appoint two separate Information Commissioners for J&K and Ladakh as this would ensure better delivery of justice.

Challenge No 3. 
J&K RTI Act 2009 was almost a carbon copy of the central RTI Act 2005. But, on some counts, it was more progressive. In the central law (RTI Act 2005), there is no time-frame to dispose of the second appeal filed when it reaches the state or the Central Information Commission. But under the J&K RTI Act 2009 (now repealed), the State Information Commission (SIC) was required to dispose of the second appeal within four months. This time-bound provision ensured a better justice delivery mechanism, and that is the reason for the least pendency of appeals before the J&K SIC as compared to the Central Information Commission (CIC) and some other state commissions. Now RTI complainants and appellants will have to wait for years and then only their appeals or complaints would get listed before CIC. This will make people disinterested and misgovernance would get boosted in J&K and Ladakh, which goes against the spirit and basic preamble of RTI law.
Violation of RTI Act 2005 in J&K
Govt of India claimed that people of J&K had no access to information as RTI Act 2005 was not applicable in J&K. The policymakers sitting in Delhi hardly knew that out of all previous J&K laws, Jammu Kashmir’s RTI Act of 2009 was the best and better legislation that RTI Act 2005 as explained above. After more than 9 months of abrogation of article 370, people of J&K instead of getting a more transparent system of governance are suffering a lot. Now Govt officers in J&K don’t even bother to provide information under RTI Act 2005 which is applicable in J&K and Ladakh from October 31st, 2019. People are not able to knock the door of State Information Commission (SIC) which has been closed down. Ordinary villagers and even educated people don’t know how to file appeal and complaint before CIC New Delhi? All the pending appeals and complaints in J&K SIC have to be shifted to Central Information Commission (CIC) New Delhi but people don’t know when their appeals and complaints would be listed? This is going to take years I am sure because of the huge workload in CIC. A few days back a friend from Leh told me that the local Divisional Commissioner’s office has not a designated Central Public Information Officer (CPIO). The same is the case with Kargil district as well where corrupt officers are not held accountable at all and RTI is being openly violated. J&K PSC and J&K Bank are playing hide and seek with aggrieved job seekers by denying them information under RTI. Municipal Council Baramulla denied sharing information to its own Councillor namely Mr. Abid Salam under RTI Act 2005 (life and liberty clause) as he wanted details of COVID 19 expenditure. The said Councillor alleges that he has been suspended when he questioned the authorities about the purchases made by Council. One Ajay Kumar an unemployed young man who belongs to a remote area of Rajouri was outrightly denied information under RTI Act 2005 by Public Service Commission (PSC) last year after 370 was abrogated. The PIO concerned told him some months back through written communication that since the J&K RTI Act 2009 has been repealed thus his RTI application is returned back. The PIO didn’t bother to provide information under Central RTI Law (RTI Act 2005). I had written a detailed piece on the issue. Ajay has been moving from pillar to post in search of justice but he doesn’t get this even under LG’s rule ? If Govt of India claims that 370 was an impediment in the growth, governance and development of J&K , why are people still suffering on all these fronts ? Why is corruption rampant? Why are Forests looted in broad daylight ? Why is the police doing corruption openly? Why are the corrupt Revenue and Municipal officials not held accountable and their properties seized? Why is not COVID 19 related information ( expenditure) made public as mandated under section 4 of RTI Act 2005 ? Why isn’t information on expenditure in “Quarantine Centers” made public? Shall Dr. Jitendra Singh or Mr Bimal Julka CIC have to tell all this to Adm Secretaries or DCs of all the districts in J&K? This has to be a proactive work that would ensure transparency but unfortunately, this is not at all happening….

Conclusion
Restoration of statehood to Jammu & Kashmir is the only option to ensure better governance. Till that decision is taken, laws like RTI Act 2005 have to be strengthened. As we demand a separate Central Administrative Tribunal (CAT) bench for J&K and Ladakh, we must also demand a dedicated bench of Central Information Commission (CIC) which will hear aggrieved RTI applicants at district headquarters in J&K and Ladakh. Govt of India must train PIOs in J&K on the implementation of RTI Act 2005. Massive RTI awareness campaign has to be initiated in J&K and Ladakh for general masses. Awareness programs on using online RTI portals has to be taken up and Govt’s J&K and Ladakh must start receiving online RTI applications soon. The government must involve Civil Society Organisations and NGOs for all this work as Govt can never do this work all alone. Voluntary disclosure of information should be made available and Govt websites be updated regularly to ensure such disclosures.

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Raja Muzaffar Bhat, president of Jammu and Kashmir RTI movement. He can be reached at raja [email protected]

 

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