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.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Muzaffar's passion in educating public on RTI is second to none

(Dr. Raja Muzaffar Bhat, 34, 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 (RTI) legislation. He is the Convener of the J&K RTI Movement and associated with the Commonwealth Human Rights Intitiative (CHRI) office in New Delhi.)

Understanding Right to Information

Article 19(1) (a) of the Indian Constitution guarantees the fundamental rights to freedom of speech and expression. The prerequisite for enjoying this right is knowledge and information. The absence of authentic information on matters of public interest will only encourage wild rumours and speculations and avoidable allegations against individuals and institutions. Therefore, the Right to Information becomes a constitutional right. This will also help the citizens perform their fundamental duties as set out in Article 51A of the Constitution. A fully informed citizen will certainly be better equipped for the performance of these duties. Thus, access to information would assist citizens in fulfilling these obligations.

Right to information is not absolute

As no right can be absolute, the Right to Information has to have its limitations. There will always be areas of information that should remain protected in public and national interest. Moreover, this unrestricted right can have an adverse effect of an overload of demand on administration. So the information has to be properly, clearly classified by an appropriate authority.

The usual exemption permitting Government to withhold access to information is generally in respect of the these matters: (1) International relations and national security; (2) Law enforcement and prevention of crime; (3) Internal deliberations of the government; (4) Information obtained in Confidence from some source outside the Government; (5) Information which, if disclosed, would violate the privacy of an individual; (6) Information, particularly of an economic nature, when disclosed, would confer an unfair advantage on some person or subject or government; (7) Information which is covered by legal/professional privilege, like communication between a legal advisor and his client and (8) Information about scientific discoveries and inventions and improvements, essentially in the field of weapons.

These categories are broad and information of every kind in relation to these matters cannot always be treated as secret. There may be occasions when information may have to be disclosed in public interest, without compromising the national interest or public safety. For example, information about deployment and movement of armed forces and information about military operations, qualify for exemption. Information about the extent of defense expenditure and transactions for the purchase of guns and submarines and aircraft cannot be totally withheld at all stages.

Need for Right to Information

The Right to Information has already received judicial recognition as a part of the fundamental right to free speech and ex-pression.The new J&K Right to Information Act 2009 which was passed very recently by the state legislature is far better than the previous one (J&K RTI Act 2004).The new RTI Law has provisions to penalise any public authority who does not share the information with the applicant or provides misleading or wrong information. This law will lay down the procedure for translating this right into reality.

Information is indispensable for the functioning of a true democracy. People have to be kept informed about current affairs and broad issues political, social and economic. Free exchange of ideas and free debate are essentially desirable for a democratic country.

In this Age of Information, its value as a critical factor in socio-cultural, economic and political development is being increasingly felt. In a corrupt state like Jammu and Kashmir availability of information needs to be assured in the fastest and simplest form possible. This is important because every developmental process depends on the availability of information and RTI can bring about transparency and accountability in our administration.

Right to know is also closely linked with other basic rights such as freedom of speech and ex-pression and right to education. Its independent existence as an attribute of liberty cannot be disputed. Viewed from this angle, information or knowledge becomes an important resource. An equitable access to this resource must be guaranteed.

Soli Sorabjee, a noted jurist, stressing on the need of Right to Information aim at bringing transparency in administration and public life, says, "Lack of transparency was one of the main causes for all pervading corruption and Right to Information would lead to openness, accountability and integrity".

Right to Information in other countries

In recent years, many Commonwealth countries like Canada, Australia, and New Zealand have passed laws providing for the right of access to administrative information. USA, France and Scandinavian countries have also passed similar laws. US Freedom of Information Act (FOI) ensures openness in administration by enabling the public to demand information about issues as varied as deteriorating civic amenities, assets of senators and utilisation of public funds.

It is not only the developed countries that have enacted freedom of information legislation, similar trends are seen in the developing countries as well. The new South Africa Constitution specifically provides the Right to Information in its Bill of Rights--thus giving it an explicit constitutional status. Malaysia operates an on-line data base system known as Civil Services Link, through which a person can access information regarding functioning of public administration. There is thus a global sweep of change towards openness and transparency.

Sweden has been enjoying the right to know since 1810. It was replaced in 1949 by a new Act which enjoyed the sanctity of being a part of the countrys Constitution itself. The principle is that every Swedish citizen should have access to virtually all documents kept by the State or municipal agencies.

In Australia, the Freedom of Information Act was enacted in December 1982. It gave citizens more access to the Federal Governments documents. With this, manuals used for making decisions were also made available. But in Australia, the right is curtailed where an agency can establish that non-disclosure is necessary for protection of essential public interest and private and business affairs of a person about whom information is sought.

Even the Soviets, under Mikhail Gorbachev, have realised that "the State does not claim monopoly of truth any longer". Glasnost has cast away the cloud of secrecy and stresses the priority of human values. Even as steps are taken to ensure openness in matters affecting the public, there has to be a greater sense of responsibility on the part of users of information in the media and elsewhere. Journalists must ensure that they seek information in public interest and not as agents of interested parties.

Landmark judgments

The need for Right to Information has been widely felt in all sectors and this has also received judicial recognition through some landmark judgments of Indian courts. A Supreme Court judgment delivered by Mr. Justice Mathew is considered a landmark. In his judgment in the state of Uttar Prdesh vs. Raj Narain (1975) case, Justice Mathew rules-In a government of responsibility like ours, where all the agents of the public must be responsible for their conduct, there can be but few secrets. The people of this country have a right to know every public act, everything that is done in a public way by their public functionaries. They are entitled to know the particulars of every public transaction in all its bearing. Their right to know, which is derived from the concept of freedom of speech, though not absolute, is a factor which should make one wary when secrecy is claimed for transactions which can at any rate have no repercussion on public security. But the legislative wing of the State did not respond to it by enacting suitable legislation for protecting the right of the people.

According to Soli Sorabjee - It was in 1982 that the right to know matured to the status of a constitutional right in the celebrated case of S P Gupta vs. Union of India (AIR) 1982 SC (149), popularly known as Judges case. Here again the claim for privilege was laid before the court by the Government of India in respect of the disclosure of certain documents. The Supreme Court by a generous interpretation of the guarantee of freedom of speech and ex-pression elevated the right to know and the right to information to the status of a fundamental right, on the principle that certain unarticulated rights are immanent and implicit in the enumerated guarantees.The court declared - The concept of an open government is the direct emanation from the right to know which seems to be implicit in the right of free speech and ex-pression guaranteed under article 19(1)a.

RTI in Jammu and Kashmir

It is hoped that the new Government in Jammu and Kashmir will train its officials about Right to Information law so that applicants do not face any problem while filing RTI applications. Government has to ensure that people are educated about this historic legislation and for this our state Government must conduct public awareness programmes through both electronic as well as print media. Above all I appeal Chief Minister to make sure that the new State Information Commission should be a transparent and independent organisation and its members must be selected on merit. It is this Commission which will look into RTI appeals etc and God forbid if this commission will not render justice to people due to political/ bureaucratic interference then our state can never ever be a corruption free state.

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