Hopes and Recommendations on CIC – Ayaz Mughal – JK Newspoint -5 Oct 2010

According to media reports and political sources, the Selection Committee for appointing the J&K State Information Commission will meet on Tuesday afternoon. The Selection Committee comprises (1) the Chief Minister Mr. Omar Abdullah, (2) the Deputy Chief Minister Mr. Tara Chand, and (3) the Leader of the Opposition Ms. Mehbooba Mufti. Under Section 12 of the Act, they are tasked with finding three commissioners who are “persons of eminence in public life with wide knowledge and experience in law, science and technology, social service, management, journalism, mass media or administration and governance.” Two of the commissioners are expected to be stationed in Jammu and in Srinagar (in the pattern of the High Court), while the Chief Information Commissioner is expected to play the leadership role, much like the Chief Justice. Together, the State Information Commission will be responsible for overseeing the implementation of RTI, including hearing appeals and complaints, and issuing orders and levying fines where appropriate.
As RTI activists, we greet this news with a number of reactions. One hand, it regrettable that the appointment of the SIC has been torturously extended over the 18 months since the RTI Act was gazetted on 20 March 2009. For several months, Mr. Wajahat Habibullah was slated to be the Chief Information Commissioner, but he withdrew from his appointment on 12 February because the Prime Minister and LOP L.K. Advani could not agree on his replacement at the Centre. Since his withdrawal, eight months were pointlessly wasted.
We also regret that appointment process has been secretive. In the pages of Greater Kashmir on 23 February 2009 and again on 21 February 2010, we asked the Selection Committee to (a) exercise transparency and (b) to involve citizens in the selection process. Specifically, we requested that they (1) call for nominations from the public, (2) hold a public hearing to hear citizens’ expectations of the Information Commissioners, (3) release a shortlist of nominees, (4) release a concrete timeframe for the appointments, and (5) reach decisions with unanimity between the 3 members, and (6) provide a justification for its final decisions. We have reminded the Selection Committee of these recommendations several times already.
We are also horrified by some of the rumored names for the SIC. For example, one article claimed that the sitting Chief Secretary is being considered for the post of the Chief Information Commissioner upon his retirement. With all due respect to Mr. Kapoor, this would be a shameful move as it would fulfill the widespread perception that the Commission will become nothing more than a puppet of the State Government rather than a true transparency watchdog. The potential for conflicts-of-interest when deciding cases would tarnish the entire working of the Information Commission, as a former Chief Secretary would preside over cases where the information concerns his own performance! This would be a blatant example of the “fox guarding the henhouse,” and must be entirely avoided.
We have also heard rumors that a recently retired IPS officer is being considered for the post. This gentleman has a reputation for being hostile to members of civil society, and had an undistinguished tenure at the State Vigilance Organisation where he ignored our efforts to collaborate on RTI. To be frank, he represents the antithesis of a good information commissioner as embodied by Mr. Habibullah and other leaders.
On the other hand, the media has reported that the Selection Committee is considering the soon-to-retire Central Income Tax Commissioner Mr. G.R. Sufi. He is an experienced officer from Kashmir with a reputation for being honest and personable. Due to his professional career at the IRS, he is not burdened with a history inside the J&K State Government that could introduce real or perceived conflicts-of-interest. We believe Mr. Sufi is the type of candidate who would make an ideal Chief Information Commissioner. We strongly recommend that the Selection Committee appoint non-bureaucrats such as jurists and academics to the other two posts.
The future Information Commission will have major hurdles ahead. First, there is the issue of attacks on RTI activists. Already, 11 RTI activists have been murdered across India this year. In J&K, Ghulam Nabi Shah of Budgam was beaten in the head on 31 May when he sought information regarding Indira Awas Yojana and NREGA funds from Block Development Officer (BDO) of Khansahib. This constituency is represented by independent MLA Hakim Mohammed Yasin. On 17 April, Mulkh Raj of Ramnagar was gheraoed, received death threats by phone, and was driven from his village home after he filed an RTI application seeking some expenditure details at the Ramnagar Higher Secondary School. This constituency is represented by Panthers Party leader Harsh Dev Singh. After organizing an RTI awareness programme in Branwar on 26 February, eight of us were threatened by a mob of 20 locals wielding bars and axes who had been organized by a Branwar ration shop owner whose corrupt practices were questioned by a colleague’s RTI application. Later, the instigators lodged a false FIR against us, claiming rioting, house trespass, assault and theft of gold ornaments. We were arrested on these false charges and paraded through Budgam in handcuffs. These incidents occurred in the constituency of A.R. Rather, who was immediately notified of the incident several times but did nothing to intervene or help.
In every case, there is evidence that government officials illegally provided information from RTI applications (including mobile numbers) to the thugs who attacked the RTI users. The Commission has powers to inquire into RTI-related matters (viz under �15(1,3 & 4) of the Act and �31, 32 of the Rules), and we trust that it will ensure thorough investigations into these incidents, including the prosecution of the perpetrators and any collaborating officials and politicians.
The second major hurdle is the widespread lack of awareness on RTI. We have organized awareness programmes with the DCs of Budgam, Rajouri, and Pulwama, but programmes in other districts were cancelled due to violence, protests, curfews, the yatra, and the flooding in Leh. Furthermore, our reach is limited since we are volunteers financed by our personal incomes and occasional donations from NGOs such as CHRI and ActionAid. The DCs must therefore assume responsibility for public awareness under Section 23 of the Act, which emphasizes raising awareness amongst “disadvantaged communities.”
In August, it was announced that NCERT is planning to introduce the Right to Information into the national curricula for classes IX-XII. The GAD, for its part, has already written to the Board of School Education, KU, and JU asking them to include RTI in their curricula. After consulting with educationists from J&K and national RTI experts, we prepared a short RTI curricula for Civics which is currently under consideration by the BOSE.
Journalists also have a responsibility to raise awareness on RTI. For example, CNN-IBN’s Jammu correspondent Ms. Pawan Bali has used RTI to reveal the wasteful renovation expenditures on ministerial bungalows over the past 5 years (broadcast on 8 May). However, very few other journalists have used the RTI Act, even when encouraged by us. We believe this represents a fundamental hypocrisy on their part, since J&K journalists often decry corruption and waste, but so few of them bother to use the tool of RTI.
A third major hurdle is that the SIC must be operationalised. Complaints, appeals, and incidents have been accumulating, and several departments have been lagging far behind on the appointment of PIOs and the release on information on their websites. Fortunately, the offices, staff, and website of the SIC were already established months ago. We believe the Chief Minister and former GAD Secretary Mr. B.A. Dhar deserve a degree of credit for their work in this regard. We strongly recommend that the forthcoming Commission examine the practices of Central Information Commissioner Shailesh Gandhi, who has established a widely praised and highly efficient computerized system for processing appeals, complaints, and reports.
Last (but certainly not least) the State Government and the Commission must support the Human Rights dimensions of RTI. We recently successfully used a (Central) RTI application to probe the 1990 BSF custodial disappearance of Mohammad Ashraf Yatoo from Budgam. Likewise, our colleague and journalist Haq Nawaz Nehru of Doda persuaded the Rashtriya Rifles in Doda to establish a batallion-level helpline (“Saathi”) for RTI-related inquiries, including those concerning human rights. The J&K State Police falls under the J&K RTI Act, and accordingly, the Government and the SIC should look into establishing similar RTI cells across the State. We formulated recommendations to this effect for the All Party Delegation, but as revealed by Prem Shankar Jha in Tehelka, we were prevented from meeting the APD during their visit to Srinagar. All the same, we trust that fellow Kashmiris will increasingly recognize the role of RTI in protecting human rights.
We look forward to the appointment of the State Information Commission in coming days, and we trust that they will ensure that the light of the Right to Information will shine in every village and every corner of our State.


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