Dr. Muzaffar Bhat, Ayaz Mughal, Paul La Porte write about the status of the RTI Act in Jammu and Kashmir and the expectations thereof

FOLLOWING last week’s aborted meeting, the Government vowed to make a new attempt in coming days to convene the Selection Committee for the State Information Commission ( SIC). The 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 RTI 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 is expected to play the leadership role, much like the Chief Justice. Together, the SIC 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 on 12 February because the PM and the 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 until Tuesday’s extraordinary ( and welcome) exchange of letters between the Chief Minister and the LOP. In the pages of Greater Kashmir on 23 February 2009 and again on 21 February 2010, we asked the Selection Committee to:

( 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. The exchange of letters shows that the CM and LOP are very serious about the credibility of the selection exercise, and we hope they’ll also implement these recommendations.

It has been reported that the Government is considering appointing J& K Government officials to the Commission.In his letter to the LOP, the Chief Minister stated that some of the names reported in the media are merely “ speculative,” and that “ the selection is not an exercise to secure post- retirement engagements for former civil servants.” Nonetheless, we must emphasize that officials from the J& K cadres shouldn’t be selected to avoid conflicts- of- interest.

The future Information Commission will have major hurdles ahead. First, there is the issue of attacks on RTI activists.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 Muhammed 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 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 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 help.

Second, there is a 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. 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 fulfill their responsibilities 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 RTIn 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.

A third hurdle is that the SIC must be operationalised. Complaints, appeals, and incidents have been accumulating, and several departments are far behind in the appointment of PIOs and the release of information on their websites.

Fortunately, the offices, staff, and website of the SIC were already established months ago thanks to the CM and the former GAD Secretary Mr. B. A. Dhar. The SIC should 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.

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.

( The authors are members of the J& K RTI Movement ( www. jkrtimovement. org)

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