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, October 8, 2009

Powering the RTI in Jammu & Kashmir

Arjimand sees hope and promise in Mr. Habibullah's appointment as the J&K CIC

(Mr. Arjimand Hussain Talib, 34, is a columnist/writer and a development professional who matriculated from Tyndale Biscoe Memorial School in 1991. He subsequently graduated with a Bachelor's degree in Engineering from Bangalore University and has a diploma in journalism as well. He is an alumni of the International Academy for Leadership, Gummerbach, Germany. Arjimand writes regular weekly columns for the Greater Kashmir and The Kashmir Times since 2000 on diverse issues of political economy, development, environment and social change and has over 450 published articles to his credit. His forthcoming book: "Confronting the Myths: A Critical Analysis of the Political Economy of Jammu & Kashmir," will be published soon. He is currently working with an international development organisation, undertaking projects evaluation and developing contingency plans in some 11 countries in Asia and Africa.)

From Here, Reforms!

Though belatedly, Wajahat Habibullah’s appointment as J&K’s Chief Information Commissioner (CIC) is a welcome step. For the advocates of a meaningful right to information (RTI) in our state, the absence of the CIC in J&K has been a serious lacuna in our information law. But the real work starts now.

Mr. Wajahat is one of those rare individuals in India’s establishment who understand and analyse the circumstances of J&K well. His significant role in the efforts to make RTI meaningful in India is well recognised. Despite a plethora of hurdles, his role in supporting the efforts for more-than-a-cosmetic RTI in J&K is well known too. But many uneasy questions remain. That extra mile required to supplement our RTI with a clean-up of our governance system is still elusive.

The appointment of a CIC, as envisaged in the J&K Right to Information Act, 2009, has come at an interesting time. The creation of and public response to an e-mail based public grievance cell set up by the Omar government is equally interesting. It is good to have a chief minister who understands and appreciates information and communications technology. But we must guard to get carried away by symbolism at the cost of substance.

The fact is that even the 2009 J&K RTI Act in its amended form does not put J&K people’s right to information at par with the rest of India. Our e-governance project for the civil secretariat has been a big flop. Community Information Centres (CICs) have still a long way to go before they could act as a strong tool to strengthen local self governance. The nature of our current administrative systems and processes is primitive. They are intrinsically a mismatch with the requisites of today’s modern governance needs. The bottom line is that J&K needs administrative reforms.

To begin with, let us understand a substantive and serious right to information alone is no guarantee to better governance. J&K needs administrative reforms which will help fine tune our service delivery systems. We badly need a new system which will bring time-sensitivity in the discharge of our public works. We need to reinvent the processes and procedures which are a legacy of the colonial era. We need to make information and communications technologies take over the paper file system, to save precious time and energy in doing petty works. We need to simplify the public approval and decision-making mechanisms. We cannot live with 18th century administrative systems in the 21st century and expect the RTI law to do a miracle.
It is well known that the categories of information excluded in J&K’s RTI seriously inhibit people’s ability to access information on many substantive matters of governance and public security. There is still a serious dearth of awareness among public officials about people’s right to information. The appointment or designation of information officers as stipulated in the 2009 RTI Act is still far from complete. Even the level of awareness among the general public about the admissible and inadmissible kinds of information is quite low.

The element of vagueness in many provisions of J&K’s RTI law makes the process of information seeking cumbersome, and, in some instances, even impossible. Information seeking continues to be costly to common people, and, of course, time consuming. Even as some basic information is possible to access under the law, macro-level information remains tightly shielded. J&K needs both micro and macro aspects of its governance to be subjected to reasonable scrutiny. Only one would not do.

The on-line system of grievance receipt introduced by Omar Abdullah has generated a good deal of public response. The month of September has come up with some interesting news on this front. As per official figures, 1650 complaints have been received through e-mails by the grievance redressal cell set up for the purpose since September 4 alone. The cell has also received about 1000 complaints on the toll-free phone set up for the same purpose.

In the absence of clear cut statutory systems, this grievance redressal system is likely to die down with time. Even if certain issues are possible to correct at the lower levels of the administration, there is currently no system to hold the senior government officials or departments responsible for professional irresponsibility. Humanly, it is not possible for Omar Abdullah to track the process of all the complaints and their redressal system. This grievance cell needs some sort of statutory teeth. Or else, it will become just a medium of communicating complaints, devoid of follow-up measures.

The idea of turning this grievance cell into a full-fledged call centre is not bad. The networking of the block-level based 134-odd community information centres (CICs) with this grievance redressal cell is an important achievement. However, this kind of ‘e-governance’ without the backing of a proper legislative framework could turn futile. These must be designed to serve more purposes than mere emailing and desk top publishing.

The setting up of J&K e-governance Agency is a welcome move too. But again, in the absence of administrative reforms, it would be an endeavour to no where. We have already lost several crores of rupees in the e-governance project of the civil secretariat, which turned out to be a big flop. There was no customisation of the software purchased from a South India-based firm because no statutory system was developed based on our needs and requirements. There was a mismatch between the information systems, processes and procedures between the borrowed software and our established systems. Any e-governance initiative is likely to reach a natural cul de sac in the absence of a reformed administrative system. Such a system cannot be software-driven. It has to be powered by the right kind of legislation.

We must also not lose sight of the thousands of the corruption cases lying with the State Vigilance Organisation (SVO) since decades. The reason a huge number of cases remain pending there is that the SVO is not appropriately empowered to take decisive and punitive actions. There continues to be a great merit in the suggestion of transforming this ‘organisation’ into an independent ‘commission’. The state of the State Accountability Commission (SAC) created with a lot of fanfare is another grim example.

J&K State today needs to seriously consider implementation of the recommendations of the Second Administrative Reforms Commission (ARC). Turning a blind eye to them would be a great folly.

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