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.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Muzaffar describes what the Right to Information (RTI) is all about

(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.)

Current status of the right to information in J&K

Under Article 370 of the Constitution of India, Central Acts do not automatically apply to the State of Jammu and Kashmir unless the act is extended through the Jammu & Kashmir State Legislature or adapted through a J&K-specific bill. The same restrictions have applied to the Central Right to Information Act, 2005, which covers all of the States and UTs of India except Jammu & Kashmir. The Government of Jammu & Kashmir had passed the Jammu and Kashmir Right to Information Act, 2004, which was nothing but the blueprint of the elestwhere Freedom of Information Act 2002(which was never operationalised). Subsequently, the Governments of Mufti Mohammed Syed and Ghulam Nabi Azad consistently argued to activists and mediapersons that there was therefore no need to make use of the stronger Central RTI Act, 2005.

Unfortunately, the J&K RTI Act, 2004 is weak and lacks many important provisions which are found in the Central RTI Act, 2005. Our group J&K RTI Movement has submitted about 80 RTI applications under the J&K RTI Act 2004 throughout the past 2 years , but in view of the weak provisions, many of these applications are not being honoured, and people are not getting any benefit out of this legislation.

Some of the missing provisions include: (1) the lack of an independent Information Commission to hear appeals and levy penalties (they are currently handled by an administrative branch of the government, the General Administration Departmentment), (2) lack of penalties for malafide refuse to provide information or unnecessary delayes in providing the same, (3) a limited number of exemptions, (4) clear deadlines for processing applications and appeals.

After filing many applications under the J&K RTI Act, 2004, and finding myself frustrated and disappointed by the lack of response to my applications, I moved the J&K High Court in 2006 through a letter to the Chief Justice that was subsequently treated as a Public Interest Litigation (PIL). The Division Bench of state High Court issued a notice to Government of J&K seeking an explanation why they had failed to implement RTI Act in letter and sprit.

After pressure from activists, the media, and the High Court, the Government of J&K decided to amend the J&K RTI Act, 2004.The amendment bill was prepared under secretive conditions by the General Administration Department, announced to the public without time for review, and rapidly rubber-stamped by the State Legislature. Unfortunately, the Amendment Act, was a botched attempt to improve the J&K RTI Act, 2004, with various loopholes and infirmities that compromised introduced provisions such as a J&K state Information Commission and a new penalities clause.

Subsequently, our group and other RTI activists across India jointly appealed the J&K Governor to withhold the assent to the RTI Amendment Bill. The Governor subsequently refused his assent to the Amendment Bill on the grounds that it was inadequate, and he sent it back to the Chief Minister. After some wrangling, the State Government staged an unusual bypass of the requirement of the Governor's assent to legislation by declaring the Bill to be a "Money Bill," which, under the Constitution of J&K, the Governor must approve and sign. Accordingly, the J&K Right to Information Amendment Act, 2008, was approved by the Governor and gazetted in January 2008. The Rules to the Amendment Act, however, were never framed and notified, and therefore it is in a state of suspended animation, leaving the J&K RTI Act, 2004 as the state's effect RTI legislation.

Around February 2008, the Chief Minister assured that he will ensure that J&K RTI amendment Act 2008 will be given more teeth in near future. Alas, the Coalition Government in J&K collapsed during the fallout to the Armanath Shrine land controversy and there was no opportunity for the CM to fulfill his promise.

The main drawbacks in the J&K RTI Amendment At 2008 are as follows:
1) The preamble of the Act does not clearly spell out its objectives
2) The High Court of Jammu and Kashmir is not covered
3) Definition of information is inadequate
4) Private bodies have been left out
5) Proactive disclosure requirement is not comprehensive enough
6) Reasons should not be required to be given for seeking information
7) Too many exemptions, no public interest override or sunset clause 10
8) Pro-government bias of the committee for selecting Information Commissioners
9) Weak State Information Commission
10) Inadequate Penalties
11) Fee related provisions are highly unsatisfactory
12) Procedure for disposing information requests is retrogressive
13) The Departmental Information Officer is not fully empowered
14) Exclusion of Intelligence and Security Agencies
15) The J&K RTI Act does not have overriding effect
16) Third party information - inadequate procedure

We estimate that presently 85% of the citizens of J&K are unaware of Right to Information Act, on the basis of surveys conducted in April 2008 in Srinagar and Budgam, two districts of J&K state. Shockingly, we also found that even 75% of government officials didn't know the ABCs of the Right to Information. This is clear violation of the fundamental rights of the people.

In June 2008 a seminar on RTI & Role of Media was organized by our group in collaboration with Media Information and Communication Centre of India(MICCI) and Friedrich Ebert Stiftung (FES India). During this event, the the former Chairperson of J&K State Human Rights Commission Justice A M Mir called the J&K RTI Act, 2004 a mere eyewash and a "gun without bullet". The Chief Information Commissioner of Central Information Commission who Wajahat Habibullah was the chief guest at this seminar and he too stressed upon strengthening of J&K RTI Act. Similarily, various members of the public and citizens groups have called on the J&K Government to strength the RTI Act.Media,NGO's,and other members of civil society have a great role to play in implementing RTI .In addition to it RTI must be included in the school and college curriculum so that students know their right under RTI at an early stage.RTI is the only tool by which we can transform the electoral democracy into participatory one.

It is heartening that we recently lobbied different political parties of J&K to take action to amend or replace the J&K RTI Act, 2004. Many of them like the National Conference, and the CPI(M) and Congress assured in their election manifestos for the ongoing elections that they will bring J&K RTI Act at par with the Central RTI Act, 2005.

Jammu and Kashmir is going through of the worst period of political instability since 1989. Meanwhile, corruption is rampant, and Transparency International determined that Jammu and Kashmir was the most corrupt state in India, even worse than Bihar. In view of these conditions our state deserves the strongest RTI legislation but the situation is the reverse-we have the weakest Right to Information Act in India. This puts a question mark on the policy makers of this great nation. The Government of India should be serious towards bringing transparency and accountability in Jammu and Kashmir. This will not only help Govt of India to eradicate corruption from our state but this will also help them to restore the confidence of the people of Jammu and Kashmir . All this is possible only when a strong RTI Act is functional in our state and the people's Right to Information is recognized and honored.

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