J&K RTI Act: A lollypop so far – Ayaz Mughal – Kashmir Times – 19 August 2011

A tree becomes useful when it is nourished from the day one. The best quality seeds sown in the best fertile land with sufficient water and manure and protected from the adverse climatic conditions shall produce the sweet fruit. But of what use is a tree if it does not produce what is expected and is laden with the burden of rotten fruits only. Likewise, any law or act is worthless if it does not produce the expected results. It turns out to be a limbless law which pleases handful of people at the helm of affairs and chunk of the population remains in deep darkness.
Right to Information Act 2009, after the lapse of about two and half years is still striving hard towards its implementation in letter and spirit. First, it remained a functionless and headless body for about seven years since it was first passed in the year 2004. In the month of December 2010, a deputation of RTI activists (including this author) met His Excellency Governor of the State and Leader of Opposition, Mehbooba Mufti seeking the appointment of the long pending posts of One State Chief Information Commissioner (CIC) with two Information Commissioners (ICs). Mehbooba Mufti (LoP) assured to be present in the next meeting of the selection panel, which she didn’t attend twice due to some reasons.
In the month of January, the deputation met Chief Minister and convinced him to fix a date for the selection of the CIC and two ICs. On 27th of January 2011, the meeting of selection panel recommended the name of G.R.Sufi, who was servicing as Chief Commissioner Income Tax as the first Chief Information Commissioner of the state. With G.R.Sufi taking over as the first CIC of the state, a ray of hope emerged for RTI users and an anticipation of new era regards RTI in Jammu and Kashmir took place in the minds of people of the state.
The dilapidating structure of State Information Commission (SIC), before its first CIC was appointed, would have perished as adamant Public Information Officers (PIOs) were using peculiar tactics to discourage the RTI users in the state. Delay in reply and refusal of genuine information was the fashion of the day for PIOs. But unfortunately in some cases, the RTI users had to face harassment. Some of the RTI users were thrashed and threatened as quick reaction for holding the Public Authorities (PA) accountable to common man. In many cases, the PIOs asked the users to withdraw their applications else they would face the ill fate. About a dozen such adverse incidents have already taken place throughout the country, in which whistle blowers and RTI users had to lose their precious lives. The latest one being the case of a woman RTI activist in Bhopal.
This kind of a situation, where RTI activists continue to be vulnerable, has not observed a significant change after the appointment of the first CIC. PIOs are still adamant in rejecting or ignoring the applications and disposal rate is trivial. RTI applications are not being taken seriously in many of the government departments. Pro-active disclosures as per the Section 4 of J&K RTI act has not been implemented in almost all of the departments. Training programmes for PIOs/APIOs and awareness programmes are also significantly less after the lapse of a significant time. The fees of the RTI application as per RTI act is very high as compared to central one and government has been requested several times to reconsider the fees but it puts a sign of interrogation at the intentions of the government to make the RTI as a tool of common man for a transparent and democratic form of government in true spirit.
Another stumbling block is the high fee for application which stands as a wall between the common man and the government and this is what government actually intends to do.
The PIOs are still enjoying the impunity under the so called strong RTI Act. The penalties have not been imposed on the erring PIOs, who failed to provide the requisite information with stipulated period but the reasons are best known to CIC. It is the time of contemplation why the Commission is so lenient towards the PIOs. PIOs are very reluctant towards the RTI applications and deliberately refuse to respond to or mislead the applicants. Appeals and complaints remain pending with the respective offices and even in SIC, but it is nothing more than piling up the files and dumping the cases like SVC, SAC etc.
Isn’t it that the bureaucracy has superseded the duties of a Commissioner or there are some reasons which have to be discussed publicly and a fruitful outcome is required out of it? It is the right time to strengthen the foundation of the SIC so that the superstructure raised on it is strong and safe. Or else, it shall be a hollow body without soul and mind, a tree with rotten fruits, a bogie without an engine. It seems that State Information Commission is just a robot with remote control in the invisible hands and if such type of situations go on prevailing in the future, then the fate of the SIC is doubtful and it shall remain nothing more than a structure without walls and a roof which cannot provide shelter to anybody, rather ends up being a drain on the national resources.
Statements given out in rage in public, by people at the helm of affairs, can’t conceal the fact about the languid progress of RTI. Very surprisingly it is alleged that some people are using the RTI as tool to blackmail and harass the officers. How can an officer get harassed and flustered at a simple application if there is nothing fishy in the system? It is another strategy to dishonour the respected and genuine RTI users. Yes, there are black sheep in every community everybody cannot be painted with the same brush.
A beginning with a big bang is not enough to guarantee strong ending. Mere taking off of RTI is not sufficient to ensure safe landing. The virus of corruption has seeped into the bloods of the system and it is expected that it would infect the most transparent body to make it opaque. An antiviral dose is required at infantry stage before it is too late and makes the whole body paralysed and we keep on rubbing our hands. Government is again expected to appoint the remaining two ICs as early as possible to complete the quorum of the SIC and direct all the Public Authorities to implement the act in their respective offices for its smooth functioning. Otherwise, RTI will be rendered into a lollypop to hoodwink the innocent population of the state.
Author is an RTI Activist and can be reached at ayaz.mughal143@ gmail.com



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