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.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

RTI is a Promise as Yet Undelivered in J&K

Raman exposes the shallow structure of the J&K RTI, and stonewalling by the J&K Bank supports his arguments

(Mr. Raman Sharma, 26, was born in Jammu city. He received his schooling in the Sri Ranbir Memorial School, Jammu, and graduated in political science and sociology from the Jammu University. Mr. Sharma is a free lance journalist and a social activist who has filed over 500 RTI applications with the Central and J&K governments.)

State Information Commission: Yet quarrelling with its tools.

After hundreds of requests and prayers from different sections of the society for constitution of State Information Commission, the state government in October 2009 issued an order for constitution of state information commission under the provisions of Jammu and Kashmir Right to Information Act 2009 (RTI).

With this order, the state government only constituted the commission, but did not appointed the commission members that are one Chief Information Commission and two Information Commissions. The stalemate sustained, and representations continued pouring in from different sections of the society now for the appointment of the state Information Commissioners. The RTI users on ground were feeling the adamant and ruthless treatment of the Public Information Officers/Bureaucrats in absence of the commission members, in short the J & K RTI Act 2009 remained in disarray as an orphan baby till Feb 28/2011 when Sh. GR Sufi took over as first Chief Information commission of the state.

The citizens, NGO’s and RTI users/activists whole heartedly welcomed the appointment with an optimism that their complaints regarding non-compliance of the provisions of the Jammu and Kashmir Right to Information Act by the Public Information Officers would be dealt with iron hands. One more important aspect in this militancy affected state is that people are always afraid of exercising their democratic rights and there are a very few people or organizations that dare to make the government and officers accountable with the means of RTI Act. Submitting an RTI application for seeking information on a sensitive issue may be risky in other parts of the country but here in this part of the country even a simple RTI application may bring the RTI applicant on the radar of the vested interests and it is even riskier, every attempt is being made to desist and discourage the RTI users. Moreover the initial fees of Rs. 50/- takes RTI law away from the reach of poor people. But if anyhow when an individual or a group files RTI application along with hefty fees expecting to get the information in the stipulated period or to approach the commission in case he is unable to receive any information or he is being victimized for seeking information.

The role of the state information commission has remained very upsetting in the cases where the citizens have been victimized by the PIO’s or other vested interests and even where the applicant has written to the commission the apprehension of risk to their lives. It is pitiable that the commission did not take any initiative for the protection of the whistleblowers though the act is silent on this aspect but the commission at its own wisdom could have done a little to restore a sense of security amongst the citizens. The issue of whistleblowers security needs more attention because in the recent past we have seen around a dozen RTI activists have been killed across the country hence being the apex body the commission must play a significant role in this regard.

The RTI users and activists who had heartedly greeted the appointment of the first chief information commission are now feeling the reverse. The experience shared by many of these activists and appellate with the commission is not very appreciable. Some of them maintain that during the proceedings the complainant is subjected to so many questions in the commission but the respondent officer/PIO are given ample time unnecessarily. Some of the RTI users even told that they were asked to produce their original applications and copies of the Fees receipt. This is gross violation of the JK RTI ACT 2009, section 16(6) of the act states that “In any appeal proceedings, the onus to prove that a denial of a request was justified shall be on the Public Information Officer who denied the request”. Here also it is sufficiently expressed in the act that it is for the PIO to prove that his cause was justifiable for denying information and in no way the appellant can be made accountable.

Irony is that In order to enhance its ambit the commission has written to all the central government departments to designate PIO’s and Appellate Authority to oblige the provisions of the Jammu and Kashmir Right to Information, it is necessary to mention here that the government departments situated in the state are already well oiled in the RTI matter under central RTI Act 2005. Contrary to this the state information commission has been failed to bring adamant State Public Authorities under the purview of JK RTI Act, Jammu and Kashmir Bank is one of the best example.

The other pretext of the commission for not imposing penalty on the erring PIO’s is that its penalty orders can be challenged in the court of law in absence of the full quorum of the commission (one CIC and Two IC’s). But the RTI rules are very articulated in this matter, rule 32(iii) of the JK RTI Rules states that “every such decision or order, whenever pronounced by a single information commissioner or by a divisional bench shall be deemed to be the decision or order by the commission under the act”. Hence the chair of the commission must explain the reason for not imposing penalty against the erring PIOs. The commission needs to realize the fact that if it continues to wait for the appointment of two other IC’s then it would be a setback for the transparency law and it will also discourage the regular RTI users and aspiring applicants. No law or rule can sustain unless a deterrent is exercised.

Some of the active RTI users who in are also government employees compliant that they are unofficially advised by the RTI Apex body to remain cautious while filing RTI queries, this is absolutely unacceptable because the Jammu and Kashmir RTI Act does not require any pre-qualification for any RTI applicant other than that he should be a resident of the state. Moreover the section 6(2) of the Jammu and Kashmir forbids any personal question from the RTI applicant, the relevant section states “ an applicant making request for information shall not be required to give any reason for requesting the information or any other personal details except those that may be necessary for contacting him.” No matters an RTI applicant is a journalist, businessman or a policeman every citizen of the state can seek information under the provisions of the JK RTI Act 2009.

The commission has also done a very little for organizing RTI training and awareness programmes for the PIO’s and the citizens respectively. Every time the excuse is given that the act is in its infancy stage, but would anyone tell that for how long this act will remain in infancy because the RTI Act was incorporated in the state in year 2004 and since then we have seen three Chief Ministers of three different parties.

It is advice to the RTI apex body that now it should hit the nail on the head and stop giving excuses. It must recommend to the state government to make budgetary provisions for the RTI Act. The innocent people of this number two-corrupt state of the country want to see tangible changes. Instead of being seen as a weak and meek institution, the commission should behave as a responsible but powerful statuary body that does not only witness things helplessly but also dare to exercise its power judiciously.

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