Why J&K needs strong and independent Information Commission – Part 1 of 2 – OpEd by JKRTIM – Kashmir Times – 16 Dec. 2010

From Page 9 of the 16 Dec. 2010 edition of Kashmir Times:

Why J&K needs strong and independent Information Commission – Part 1 of 2

By Muzaffar Bhat, Balvinder Singh, Ayaz Mughal

The Right to Information Act, the State Accountability Commission, and the proposed State Vigilance Commission comprise a tripod of institutions that offer the best hopes for reforming endemic corruption and maladministration in our state. All three are suffering, especially the Right to Information.

The sorry state of RTI in J&K today

Since the enactment of the J&K RTI Act on 19 March 2009, the public has seen how the Government’s implementation of the Act has failed in many areas due a lack of focus, willpower, and strategy. Every major newspaper has described incidents where (1) RTI applications were ignored, (2) false or incorrect information was provided, (3) officials mishandled applications due to their utter ignorance of RTI provisions, (4) residents of rural areas had little knowledge on RTI, and (5) incidents where users and activists were threatened, physically assaulted, or falsely prosecuted for filing RTI applications. Every week, we receive additional e-mails, phone calls, and blog comments complaining about non-implementation from citizens in Srinagar, Budgam, Kulgam, Kargil, Doda, Jammu, Rajouri, Udhampur, and other districts.

We have highlighted these shortcomings in many open letters, OpEds and interviews, but the Government has scarcely registered a response or responded with a comprehensive implementation plan. The General Administration Department is the nodal agency for implementing RTI, but we’ve seen that it is overtaxed with other responsibilities and can’t properly ensure RTI implementation across our government and its 5 lakhs employees. Periodic interventions by the Governor and the CM’s Grievance Cell have been helpful, but they have not addressed these larger issues. In the months after the 2008 elections, the Chief Minister seemed personally committed to the implementation of RTI, and periodically communicated with us about matters such as PIO training. However, his personal interest in implementing RTI seems to have waned. Why the Chief Minister would neglect one of his signature achievements is beyond our understanding.

The desperate need for a strong State Information Commission

It has therefore become clear that the State Information Commission (SIC) is the last hope for implementing RTI. The J&K RTI Act of 2009 grants the SIC the powers to summon officials, make binding decisions on the release of information, levy fines on officials who willfully flout the law, and refer the worst offenders to prosecution under the RPC. The Information Commission already has offices and staff in Jammu and Srinagar, but it has been inoperative for lack of any Commissioners.

Section 12(3) of the J&K RTI Act 2009 calls for the Commission’s recommendation by a Selection Committee comprising of (1) the Chief Minister (Omar Abdullah), (2) a second minister nominated by the CM (Tara Chand), and (3) the official or effective Leader of the Opposition [LOP] (Mehbooba Mufti). Together, they represent the 3 largest parties in J&K. The Committee must select one Chief Information Commissioner and two Information Commissioners to comprise the 3-member Commission, where the terms last 5 years. The Governor must then decide whether to approve and appoint these choices or send them back to the Committee. There are no guidelines on how the Selection Committee operates, but PM Manmohan Singh and then-LOP LK Advani agreed that the Central Selection Committee should make decisions unanimously, since the presence of the LOP on the Committee would otherwise be pointless and contrary to the intentions of Parliament. Section 12(5) of the J&K RTI Act requires the selection of “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.” Importantly, Commissioners cannot serve beyond 65 years of age.

Chief Central Information Commissioner Wajahat Habibullah was nominated by the Committee on 1 October 2009. He was an experienced and inspirational choice, but he was forced to withdrawal 4 months later on 12 February 2010 because his replacement at the Centre could not be found. Despite our pleas, there was no move to replace him until this summer’s unrest in the Valley forced the Government to introspect on good governance. In September, they focused again on appointing the SIC.

Recent developments in appointing the SIC

Nine weeks ago, the media became rife with rumors about the Government’s supposed “picks,” including Chief Secretary S.S. Kapoor and retired IPS official Ashok Bhan. The LOP objected to these “leaks” in the media, since they implied that the Selection Committee was only “window dressing” for a “fait accompli.” The LOP boycotted the first Selection Committee meeting scheduled on 8 October. Later that evening, the CM and the LOP exchanged letters demonstrating their shared commitment to a transparent and genuine selection process. In fact, we believe that the media rumors don’t represent the true intentions of Omar Abdullah or Mehbooba Mufti, but rather those of idlers and gossips in politics and bureaucracy who are seeking to promote their own picks without regard to interests of RTI and well-being of the public.

The importance of transparency in selecting the SIC

We have seen how RTI has become a fundamental pillar of our democracy, improved governance, and changed people’s lives in other states, especially in rural areas. We want the same for the people of J&K. We have volunteered thousands of hours working, writing, teaching, advocating and speaking about RTI during the past 5 years, sometimes in the face of threats, physical attacks, and false prosecutions. It would be irresponsible for us to reach this point and then silently watch as insiders promote their own sub-par choices to lead the State Information Commission. If the SIC includes spineless, corrupt or ineffective appointees, then RTI will crumble across the state, with officials at all levels continuing to willfully flout RTI provisions and abuse RTI applicants. For example, in U.P., Mayawati’s government castrated RTI by appointing feckless ex-babus who have sabotaged RTI and left users vulnerable to abuse, including the July murder of an RTI user of Village Bahraich. The U.P. SIC recently became a national laughingstock when, without any legal justification, they denied RTI to a school girl who filed an application about a fetid, illegal garbage dump outside her school because “she was a minor.” Do we want RTI in J&K to meet this same stinking fate of spinelessness and incompetence?

We therefore cannot permit the selection of the J&K SIC to devolve into a “parlour game” played out through whispered conversations between politicians and bureaucrats. The selection process should be open and transparent, and should involve the public through nominations and public hearings on their expectations. There should be genuine discussion about the merits of candidates, and the final choices should be unanimous and thoroughly justified. We have pleaded these points many times with the Selection Committee. We have discussed this matter with the Leader of the Opposition as well as the Governor, and they have both agreed that the process needs to be made more transparent, but the Chief Minister and his deputy seem to have ignored our pleas and their views.

We must therefore use these pages to raise these issues for benefit of readers, the public, and Committee.

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