Introduction to Blog

I launched the website and the Blog after having spoken to government officials, political analysts and security experts specializing in South Asian affairs from three continents. The feedback was uniformly consistent. The bottom line is that when Kashmiris are suffering and the world has its own set of priorities, we need to find ways to help each other. We must be realistic, go beyond polemics and demagoguery, and propose innovative ideas that will bring peace, justice and prosperity in all of Jammu and Kashmir.

The author had two reasons to create this blog. First, it was to address the question that was being asked repeatedly, especially, by journalists and other observers in the U.S., U.K., and Canada, inquiring whether the Kashmiri society was concerned about social, cultural and environmental challenges in the valley given that only political upheaval and violence were reported or highlighted by media.

Second, the author has covered the entire spectrum of societal issues and challenges facing Kashmiri people over an 8-year period with the exception of politics given that politics gets all the exposure at the expense of REAL CHALLENGES that will likely result in irreversible degradation in the quality of life and the standard of living for future generations of Kashmiris to come.

The author stopped adding additional material to the Blog once it was felt that most, if not all, concerns, challenges and issues facing the Kashmiri society are cataloged in the Blog. There are over 1900 entries in the Blog and most commentaries include short biographical sketches of authors to bring readers close to the essence of Kashmir. Unfortunately, the 8-year assessment also indicates that neither Kashmiri civil society, nor intellectuals or political leadership have any inclination or enthusiasm in pursuing issues that do not coincide with their vested political agendas. What it means for the future of Kashmiri children and their children is unfathomable. But the evidence is all laid out.

This Blog is a reality check on Kashmir. It is a historical record of how Kashmir lost its way.

Vijay Sazawal, Ph.D.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

No, it does not have the media appeal of IKS or SASB, but few issues have a greater impact on the daily life in Kashmir than RTI

Muzaffar Bhat has a word of caution for State bureaucrats and politicians trying to restrict freedom of information in J&K

(Dr. Raja Muzaffar Bhat, 33, was born in Wathoora village in the Budgam district and matriculated from Tyndale Biscoe Memorial High School in 1993. He completed his Bachelor's degree in Dental Surgery from from the Karnatka University in 2000. He has a private dental practice in Chandoora and is a social activist dedicated to educating public on the Right To Information legislation.)

Media and Right to Information (RTI)

The Press Council of India in March 2001, had stated that the Right to Information Legislation is an important tool in the hands of media. It stated that at present, one of the stumbling blocks in the path of investigative, analytical and popular journalism is the difficulty in getting access to the official information. Bureaucracy, Police, Army, Judiciary and even the Legislature guard information regarding even the most mundane subjects.

Few journalists are able to break this iron curtain of the official non-cooperation. The right to Information will encourage journalists and society at large to be more questioning about the state of affairs and will be powerful tool to check the unmitigated goings-on in the public realm and will also promote accountability. No longer will scribes have to depend on conjecture, rumour, leaks and ‘sources’. The legislation will pose an antidote to vested interests which try to conceal or misinterpret information or which try to manipulate media directly or indirectly to plant misinformation. Through this legislation, transparency in public, professional, social and personal sphere can be achieved.

It is really surprising that such an accurate evaluation by the Press Council was not given any importance by the media, both print and electronic, at that time. The media could not even find time to welcome the implementation of the Information Act, officially. This was just believed to be the matter related to the farmers of Rajasthan and of the people of the slums of Delhi, or thought as the matter related to the people working with NGOs. Its use was far away from question. It was completely ignored by the media. While, on the other hand few people who used it as a weapon in journalism had an interesting experience and discovered new path as well.

Under section 19(1) (a) of the Indian Constitution, the citizens of India have been given the right to freedom of speech and expression but without access to information this right is incomplete. Right to Information is nothing but the access to information. Evaluation of public authorities is incomplete without access to information.

The privatization of Delhi Jal Board (Dehi Water Board) was started with the help of the World Bank. A local voluntary organization, Parivartan scrutinized the documents which were obtained under Right to Information from the Water Board. These documents contained more than four thousand pages. The facts indicated a frightening truth. It was revealed that in order to give the work to the multinational company, Price Waterhouse Cooper (PWC) the World Bank had forced the Delhi Jal Board and the Delhi government to agree on disgraceful terms. Other concerning facts also came out. The cost of the water would have risen by six times if this plan has been implemented. The water would have been provided to only those areas were people would voluntarily agree to lay down the pipelines at their own expense.

This example states that media can write about things by studying the concerned documents seriously. Earlier it was impossible. Therefore, a basic difference can be seen between the journalism before and after the arrival of Right to Information Act. This difference can be clearly comprehended by understanding the differences between the provisions of the Official Secrets Act and the Right to Information. The Official Secret Act can make most of the information secret, while the RTI act discloses almost all the information.

The right to Information has enabled a new kind of journalism. Its examples can be heard in different parts of the world.

The Guardian published a report that after Second World War, Britain had made a secret jail in Germany for two years. This information was possible by the use of Right to Information. The Nazis were tortured mercilessly. This information was procured from one of the files of the foreign department of Britain, which was prepared by Tom Havard, inspector of Scotland Police.

The Indian Express revealed the truth of the promises made in the rail budget. This was also exposed through the help of RTI. According to the reports published on 25th February 2006 by Ritu Sarin, around forty seven crores plan is still pending which was announced earlier. The government was forced to withdraw its decision of privatizing the Delhi Jal Board. This is one of the major achievements of Right to Information.

We the people of Jammu Kashmir have always been subjected to step-motherly treatment from Centre as well as State governments. Under Article 370 no Central law finds its automatic extension to Jammu and Kashmir unless ratified by the State legislature. The Central RTI Act could not be extended to J&K in view of the special constitutional status conferred to J&K. Then how did Government of India extended Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) to J&K? Our State Government passed J&K Right to Information Act 2004.This act is much weaker than its Central version. This act is nothing but the blueprint of erstwhile Freedom of Information Act 2002 of Govt of India (this act was never operationalised). The J&K RTI Act 2004 has lots of loopholes and it lacks many important provisions which are contained in Central act. For example if an official denies information under Central RTI Act or if he gives incomplete of false information the official is liable to a fine of Rs 250 per day that is to be deducted from his monthly salary. There is no such provision in J&K RTI Act. Similarly in Central RTI Act, under section 7(1) if a person is being arrested by some security agency the information is to be given within 48 hours to his relatives. J&K RTI Act 2004 lacks this important provision.

Now the government is planning to go for further amendments in J&K RTI Act 2004, in the upcoming Assembly session. We hope that this important legislation is made at par or stronger than Central act. It is the media who ought to play an important role in order to impress upon State Government to strengthen J&K Right to Information Act so that there is transparency and accountability in our administration.

Government officials and politicians must know that they are the servants of people not their masters. It is the common people who pay taxes out of which politicians and bureaucrats get hefty salaries. So why shall we be denied the information about the public funds? Our politicians must refrain from vote-bank politics and they must transform this mere electoral democracy into participatory democracy.

Meanwhile, in India RTI is making a real difference ......

RTI Act, the Good Samaritan

It has been hailed as a landmark achievement of the UPA government and rightfully so. There has never been an example in Independent India that a single Act has led to so much churning in the bureaucracy and for the benefit of the common man. The Right to Information Act is not an ordinary law, but a law that has ensured openness and transparency much to the detriment of those who had a vested interest in keeping things under wraps. Going by the success stories, it seems that the Act is a Good Samaritan as it has worked wonders across the country, bringing joy to a large number of people.

Thanks to RTI Act, thousands of Indian Railway pensioners will at last get their outstanding dues. Indian Railway Pensioners Association Bhavnagar Division of Western Railway, over the years, submitted hundreds of representations to GM Western Railway & DRM Bhavnager to get the payment in the above cases. 137 specific cases of non-payment were filed in the pension Adalat held on 15th of December, 2006 but nothing happened. When on 16th of March, 2007, a request under RTI ACT 2005 was submitted to CPIO Western Railway for disclosing the reasons for not implementing the judgment of the Apex court, things started moving. Sh. S.R. Ghosal Dy. General Manager Western Railway through his letter dated 3rd of May, 2007 with reference to request under RTI Act, accepted the liability for making payment and all the Divisions of Western Railway were advised to take immediate steps for making payment. The Pensioners, in the twilight hours of their lives, can also use RTI Act and get the entire working sheet regarding calculation of pension. This can be verified to point out any error in calculation of pension and gratuity.

Another noteworthy case relates to problems faced by MTNL subscribers in Mumbai.Even after surrendering their phones, they have had to wait for months and years together to get the refund of their deposit. Moreover, MTNL did not pay the interest accrued on the deposit to its subscribers. But the Right to Information Act (RTI) came to their rescue after one such harassed subscriber in Mumbai used the Act to get his interest accrued on the refund within 20 days of filing the RTI query. Kishore Chitalia, a Santacruz resident, was using MTNL's Garuda mobile phone till April last year. After he surrendered the phone, he applied for the refund. "Inspite of following it up with various MTNL authorities, right up to the general manager level, and sending e-mails, there was no response from them for months together," said Chitalia. He added that whenever he spoke to an officer in one department, he was asked to speak to another person in yet another department. "I must have made at least 50 calls, but I always got an answer that the matter is under process," he said. Ultimately, in January this year, Chitalia received the deposit refund cheque of Rs 3,000, but he realised that they had not paid any interest for keeping his amount in their kitty for nine months.

A few weeks later, he filed an RTI query on the issue. He asked about the stipulated time in which the refunds have to be paid and the interest that is to be paid in case of delay. But instead of getting a reply from MTNL, he got a cheque for the accrued interest. Later he also got a reply from MTNL informing him that the stipulated time period was two months and in case of a delay, the deposit attracted an interest of 10%. Thus, there have been several stories of citizens using the RTI Act to make the administration work according to rule. These stories show how powerful RTI can be in the hands of well meaning citizens who wish to make the system work in favour of the underprivileged. The basic object of the Right to Information Act is to empower the citizens, promote transparency and accountability in the working of the Government, contain corruption, and make our democracy work for the people in real sense. An informed citizenry will be better equipped to keep necessary vigil on the instruments of governance and make the government more accountable to the governed. The Act has created a practical regime through which the citizens of the country may have access to information under the control of public authorities.

A citizen has a right to seek such information from a public authority which is held by itself or which is held under its control. This right includes inspection of work, documents and records; taking notes, extracts or certified copies of documents or records; taking certified samples of material held by the public authority or held under the control of the public authority. Information is any material in any form. It includes records, documents, memos, e-mails, opinions, advices, press releases, circulars, orders, logbooks, contracts, reports, papers, samples, models, data material held in any electronic form. It also includes information relating to any private body which can be accessed by the public authority under any law for the time being in force.

A citizen has a right to obtain information in the form of diskettes, floppies, tapes, video cassettes or in any other electronic mode or through print-outs provided information is already stored in a computer or in any other device from which the information may be transferred to diskettes etc. Further, the information to the applicant shall ordinarily be provided in the form in which it is sought.

It is important to note that the RTI Act gives the right to information only to the citizens of India. It does not make provision for giving information to Corporations, Associations, Companies etc., which are legal entities/persons, but not citizens. However, if an application is made by an employee or office-bearer of any Corporation, Association, Company, NGO etc. who is also a citizen of India, information shall be supplied to him/her, provided the applicant gives his/her full name. In such cases, it will be presumed that a citizen has sought information at the address of the Corporation etc. Further, the right to seek information from a public authority is not absolute. Sections 8 and 9 of the Act enumerate the categories of information which are exempt from disclosure. At the same time Schedule II of the Act contains the names of the Intelligence and Security Organisations, which are exempt from the purview of the Act. The exemption of the organisations, however, does not cover supply of information relating to allegations of corruption and human rights violations.

How exactly can a citizen seek information? A citizen who desires to obtain any information under the Act, should make an application to the Central Public Information Officer (CPIO) of the concerned public authority in writing in English or Hindi or in the official language of the area in which the application is made. All the central government public authorities have designated their Central Public Information Officers and have posted their particulars on their respective web sites. This information is also available on 'RTI PORTAL'. The applicant can send the application by post or through electronic means or can deliver it personally in the office of the public authority. The applicant, along with the application, should send a demand draft or a banker's cheque or an Indian Postal Order of Rs.10/- (Rupees ten), payable to the Accounts Officer of the public authority as fee prescribed for seeking information. The applicant may also be required to pay further fee towards the cost of providing the information. But, if the applicant belongs to below poverty line (BPL) category, he is not required to pay any fee. The CPIO shall render reasonable assistance to the persons seeking information.. For instance, if a person is unable to make a request in writing, he may seek the help of the CPIO to write his application. Similarly, where a decision is taken to give access to a sensorily disabled person to any document, the CPIO, shall provide such assistance to enable access to information, including providing such assistance to the person as may be appropriate for the inspection. While the above procedure is true for the authorities under the Central Government there are some differences across States with reference to seeking information from public authorities under the State Governments.

It may be noted that there is no prescribed form of application for seeking information. The application can be made on plain paper. The application should, however, have the name and complete postal address of the applicant. Even in cases where the information is sought electronically, the application should contain name and postal address of the applicant. Further, the information seeker is not required to give reasons for seeking information. The CPIO is required to provide information to the applicant within thirty days of the receipt of a valid application. If the information sought for concerns the life or liberty of a person, the information shall be provided within forty-eight hours of the receipt of the request.

If the CPIO is of the view that the information sought for cannot be supplied under the provisions of the Act, he would reject the application. However, while rejecting the application, he shall inform the applicant the reasons for such rejection and the particulars of the appellate authority. If any person is unable to submit a request to a CPIO either by reason that such an officer has not been appointed by the concerned public authority; or the Assistantship has refused to accept his or her application or appeal for forwarding the same to the CPIO or the appellate authority, as the case may be; or he has been refused access to any information requested by him under the RTI Act; or he has not been given a response to a request for information within the time limit specified in the Act; or he has been required to pay an amount of fee which he considers unreasonable; or he believes that he has been given incomplete, misleading or false information, he can make a complaint to the Central Information Commission. The Central Information Commission decides the appeals and complaints and conveys its decision to the appellant/complainant and first appellate authority/CPIO. The Commission may decide an appeal/complaint after hearing the parties to the appeal/complaint or by inspection of documents produced by the appellant/complainant and CPIO or such senior officer of the public authority who decided the first appeal. If the Commission chooses to hear the parties before deciding the appeal or the complaint, the Commission will inform of the date of hearing to the appellant or the complainant at least seven clear days before the date of hearing. The appellant/complainant has the discretion to be present in person or through his authorized representative at the time of hearing or may opt not to be present.

The citizens must make use of the revolutionary RTI Act to make their lives and lives of their fellow citizens better and to make the Government authorities increasingly accountable and effective.[

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