India is about to enter the third month of extensive lockdown with some places seeing the ease in restrictions while many others coming under more stringent controls. Schools, colleges, universities, government offices, shopping malls are almost closed. Public transport is off the roads. In Jammu and Kashmir, particularly in the Valley, the current phase of lockdown is just a continuation of the earlier restrictions that have been going on for almost ten months now.
Since 5 August 2019, most Kashmiris have almost been confined to only their homes. Not only at the political level, but we have also suffered on many other fronts so immensely. Our educational institutions were shut down for almost six months last year, tourism suffered a major jolt, and business was at standstill. When schools reopened by February end this year after a long lock-down and harsh winter, it was expected that at least the educational sector would work smoothly this year (2020). Who knew that COVID 19 would become a pandemic and there would be a worldwide lockdown? After attending classes for mere five to six days, schools were shut down from 5 March onwards. By March 15th almost all the schools, colleges, and universities were closed not only in J&K, but in other states and countries as well.
During Kashmir lock-down post article 370 abrogation we had no access to telephones and the internet for many months, but this time that is not the case. We have access to telephones and 2G internet service which actually is a “Luxury” for Kashmiri people in this age of information revolution.
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As all Government institutions are almost shut, the role of online citizen services has gained momentum across the world. Online classes are held for students. Many private and government offices do their work through video conferences and other online platforms. But unlucky people of Jammu & Kashmir again have no access to all the online Government services in view of the non-availability of 4G internet service. Many Kashmiri students do attend online classes but they hardly see the face of their teachers as video calls don’t work smoothly with 2G internet service and hence only audio classes are conducted. Parents especially the educated mothers are trying their best to take care of the education of their kids in lock-down. Children, whose parents are illiterate or semi-literate on the other hand are the worst sufferers as they have nobody to take care of their studies? Neither do they have access to online classes nor can their parents help them out?
Access to Information
From last more than a month I am getting regular calls from people intending to seek information from Government under Right to Information Act (RTI). Most of this information is of great public importance especially funds spend on COVID 19 pandemic, the supply of free ration, availability of medicines and life-saving drugs in hospitals, availability of N 95 masks, sanitizers, and gloves at chemist shops. Nobody knows how to seek information as Govt offices are not working, transport is off the roads, post offices are almost shut. The only way out is seeking information through online mode but this service is not available in Jammu & Kashmir. On the other hand, most of the central Government offices have this facility available for the last many years. States like Maharashtra, Delhi, Telangana, Andhra Pradesh also receive online RTI applications through a designated portal and Rs 10 RTI application fees is deducted from the bank account of applicant in the same manner as is deducted during online shopping. On one hand J&K has been brought under the direct control of the Government of India, but on the other hand services that are available with Central Government are not extended to J&K. Online RTI application filing is one such example.
Statement by Dr. Jitendra Singh
Minister in Prime Ministers Office (PMO) Dr. Jitendra Singh recently said that RTI 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, 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”? One fails to understand how can people seek information from home when no online RTI services are available in Jammu & Kashmir and 4G internet is not working on mobile phones?
SC on online RTI
The Supreme Court last year gave four more weeks to the Center and 25 states to file responses on a plea seeking directions for setting up online RTI portals, enabling people to apply electronically for the information required instead of filing applications physically. The role of filing online RTI has become more important during this COVID 19 pandemic. A bench of justices N V Ramana, Sanjiv Khanna, and Krishna Murari had expressed displeasure during the case hearing in October last year as the apex court had issued notice to the Center and states on the petition on August 26, 2019. The states including J&K had failed to file the response before SC. The PIL in this regard was filed by a Delhi-based NGO ‘Pravasi Legal Cell’. The plea said the Centre has established an online RTI portal in which any Indian citizen, including NRIs, can apply for information under the RTI Act with the desired ministry or department. Pertinently Central Government in December 2013 had requested the state governments to explore the feasibility of implementing online RTI in their respective states but only a handful of States implemented the same.
Pro-active disclosure of Info
Under Section 4 (1) (b) of the RTI Act, 2005 Government departments are supposed to make a voluntary disclosure of information that is of great public importance. Recently J&K Chemists and Druggists Association through a video posted on its face-book page claimed that there was no shortage of medicines and other medical supplies in Kashmir. On the other hand people are forced to buy N 95 masks and surgical gloves from the black market. The N 95 mask which is to be sold at Rs 97 per piece in the retail market is sold at Rs 270 to Rs 300 while surgical gloves are sold three times more than the print rate. People would like to know under RTI about the availability of these products in the market but how can this information be sought under RTI amid COVID 19 lock-down? Does this mean that people don’t have the Right to Access Information during a lock-down? Why is this right being denied to people especially the residents of Jammu & Kashmir?
Many Government departments are spending huge public money to counter COVID 19, but who knows how much has been spend and where it has been spending? Let there be transparency as Govt officials themselves are alleging that some of their colleagues are committing frauds. I had suggested making the details of expenditure available through an online portal that could be updated regularly. This is also mandated under section 4 of the RTI Act 2005 (proactive disclosure of information). Officials working with essential services departments allege that chemicals and other materials used in ongoing pandemic have been purchased on exorbitant rates by their seniors. A forest official told me a few days back that around Rs 75,000 were provided to a DFO for buying masks and sanitizers for his staff in the forest division. The officer hardly spends Rs 5000 and kept the rest of the money in his pocket and obtained fake vouchers.
If this is only an allegation let the authorities make voluntary disclosure about all the purchases made during the last two months? Let the details of daily expenditure in Quarantine centers be made public? If people can’t get Rs 10 postal order or have no access to Govt offices or cannot send RTI applications via speed post or courier, what is the way out? The only way out is to start an online RTI portal that is linked with the General Administration Department’s (GAD) website. The government cannot deny its citizens the Right to Access information through an Online mode.
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