Status of RTI in J&K by Muzaffar Bhat The Daily Excelsior
On Sunday evening-almost 11 months since the J&K RTI Act 2009 was gazetted-the people of J&K learned that ex-IAS officer Wajahat Habibullah would not be coming to Jammu & Kashmir to become the State’s first Chief Information Commissioner.
Wajahat is presently the first Chief Information Commissioner of India, and was responsible for successfully establishing and safeguarding the Right to Information Act in the Central government since his term began in October of 2005. Last October, he submitted his resignation to the President. Days later, the Governorof the State officially appointed him to be the J&K State Information Commission.
Since that time, we have been hoping that he would do the same for this state, particularly in view of (1) his reputation, (2) his integrity and (3) his deep experience with both RTI and Jammu & Kashmir. But the Central government has been unwilling to find his replacement, and Prime Minister Manmohan privately advised him last week to remain in Delhi at the Chief Information Commission [CIC] until his retirement at the age of 65 in September.
Although Mr. Habibullah had some critics, it’s also true that there wasn’t a more qualified or promising candidate for the job. But we criticize the Centre and Mr. Habibullah for leaving RTI in J&K paralyzed for so many months–and to no avail. His coming appointment was known to us last August, and was reported widely in the media in September. On 1 October, his appointment was finalized by the Selection Committee convened under Section 12(3) of the JKRTI 2009 that comprised of the CM Omar Abdullah, the Deputy CM Tara Chand and the acting Leader-of-the-Opposition Mehbooba Mufti.
But the Centre insisted that Mr. Habibulla’s replacement first had to be found by the Central Selection Committee, which comprises of the PM Manmohan Singh, the Law Minister Veerappa Moily and the Leader-of-the-Opposition first LK Advani and then Sushma Swaraj. So J&K waited… and waited… and waited…. The Central Selection Committee convened in December, but they could not agree on candidate since the Centre was proposing ex-babus while Mr. Advani was proposing eminent citizens like Kiran Bedi (ex-IPS) and Shekhar Singh (RTI legal expert).
Now, we’ve finally learned that Manmohan Singh was simply unwilling to find a strong replacement, and that Mr. Habibullah was simply unwilling to force the issue by implementing his own resignation and walking away from the Central Information Commission.As RTI activists, this development comes as a shock to us. Now the future of RTI in J&K is in chaos.
The J&K Selection Committee must meet again, and decide upon the Chief and the two additional Commissioners who comprise the 3-member Commission. At the Centre, civil society activists and eminent citizens including Arvind Kejriwal, Aruna Roy, Narayana Murthy, and Aamir Khan have called upon the Centre to (1) frame a clear and transparent procedure for appointing the Information Commissioners, and (2) to select strong, eminent citizens rather than picking babus and other “blue-eyed boys.” We repeat this call to the Government of J&K. We already forwarded some recommended names, including current and former justices of the J&K High Court who would be outstanding Chief Information Commissioners. We call upon Mr. Abdullah, Mr. Chand and Ms. Mufti to move swiftly and transparently in this direction.
Fortunately, during this fruitless 6 month long wait, some progress was made in establishing the State Information Commission. On 19 October, the SIC was constituted by the Government vide SRO 325, and the IAS officer Gazzanfer Hussain was appointed as its first Secretary. The Commission currently now has offices in Srinagar at the Old Assembly Complex (Tel. 194-2484269), and a temporary office at House No. 14, Sector 8 in Trikuta Nagar in Jammu (Tel. 0191-2475260). Officials at both offices are receiving appeals and complaints from citizens until the time that the Chief Information Commissioner assumes office.
However, we have questions for the Government in eight areas where implementation has been lacking.
First, “When will the Government appoint all the required PIOs and APIOs?” Every “Public Authority” appoint Public Information Officers (PIOs) to receive & process RTI applications by the 28 June 2009 (§5(1)). They must also appoint Assistant PIOs (APIOs) in each district office to receive & forward RTI applications from rural applicants to the concerned PIOs.
To date, 32 of 35 Departments have appointed at least one PIO, and the details have been put on the GAD’s website. After we sent reminder, the Chief Minister’s Secretariat, the Raj Bhawan, the Legislative Council, the Legislative Assembly and the High Court have also appointed PIOs. Yet, 8 months after the deadline, the Elections, Estates, and Technical Education Departments have no PIOs or APIOs! A dozen bodies under government control or ownership (such as the J&K Police, SIDCO, SICOP, ERA, SFC, WDC, JK Cement, J&K Bank) also have no PIOs or APIOs! Finally, many service-oriented Departments have not appointed APIOs in each District, including Revenue, Agriculture and Health.
Second, “When will the PIOs, APIOs, and other relevant government officials be trained in RTI Act & Rules, including ‘best practices’ from elsewhere in India?” RTI users have found that many officials in Government are ignorant of basic RTI provisions, sometimes creating trouble. The new Act requires that the Government provide training to government officials, especially the PIOs and APIOs (see § 23(1)(d)). Yet, not even a single training programme has been conducted.
Fortunately, there are some positive examples to emulate. The SVO has diligently maintained a webpage detailing the status of all RTI applications it has received. We recommend that all Departments and Public Authorities follow this practice as fulfillment of the monitoring & reporting requirements of §22.
Third, “When will the Government conduct RTI awareness programmes for the public?” The Government is required to raise awareness and provide training to the public, especially for “disadvantaged communities” (See §23(1)(a) and (b)). Yet no RTI awareness programmes for the public have organized in the past year. Under Section 40, the Rules empower the State Information Commission to conduct awareness programmes, and so the Government may consider funding the SIC and civil society groups to fulfill this obligation on its behalf.
Fourth, “When will the Government start pro-actively releasing information through information booklets and websites?” The J&K RTI Act 2009 requires that the Government disclose as much information “suo moto” as possible (§4) to improve transparency and reduce reliance on RTI applications. Yet 32 of the Government’s 35 departments don’t even have websites, and only the J&K Police and the GAD have published their information booklets. To fulfill this provision, every department must establish a website and publish its information booklet.
Fifth, “Where are the RTI user guides for the public?” The Government is required to prepare and release a free “RTI user guide” in English, Urdu and Hindi (see § 23(2-4)) within 18 months of gazetting. Yet, there has been no effort to prepare, print, and circulate this user guide.
Sixth, we ask, “has the Government set aside budgets for training programmes, awareness programmes, information and RTI user booklets, and for the State Information Commission?” The Rules empower the SIC to: (1) conduct RTI programmes, (2) lay down computerization standards for Government, (3) perform transparency ratings of Departments and authorities, and (4) maintain an RTI & Transparency Institute to study transparency measures (see §s 13, 14(i)(c), 35, 36 and 40 of the Rules). Has the Government established a budget for any of these programmes? What are the details and who will be responsible and accountable for implementation?
Seventh, “When will the Government correct the RTI forms that it has recently released on the GAD website?” The GAD has posted 5 forms for use by applicant and PIOs, which were simply “updates” of the old forms used for the defunct J&K RTI Act of 2004. The forms include several major errors, including (1) the false requirement that applicants appear in person before PIOs, (2) the false impression that fees must always be paid (BPL applicants are exempt), (3) the erroneous impression that information fee calculations do not have to be shown by PIO, and finally (4) the false impression that only PIOs must provide application receipts (APIOs must also provide receipts, too).
In summary, we call upon the Government to move swiftly and address all of the afore-mentioned issues, including a process for selecting the State Information Commission that is transparent and involves civil society. RTI in J&K has waited long enough, and now the onus is on the Government to formulate and explain its plans.