RTI: Towards Opaqueness

The recent notification by the J&K government to change the RTI Act 2010 has left civil society and political leaders aghast. Many claim that the fresh amendments will make the state information commission, which had brought transparency in the administration, a toothless body, BILAL HANDOO reports.

Women Protesters
Women Protesters-Photo:Bilal Bahadur.

Seeking information from the government won’t be the same again. On Aug 30, the state government officially brought in fresh amendments to the Right to Information Act 2010, virtually making it a ‘toothless’ body. The amendments have reduced the rules earlier spread over 27 pages to a mere six pages now. The fresh amendments are largely about the implementation of orders and appeals of State Information Commission’s (SIC).

The RTI Act was introduced in Jammu and Kashmir in 2004 which was amended in 2009 and again in 2010. The act had brought lot of transparency and accountability in the government. However, the new rules have raised eyebrows of civil society activists and triggered sharp criticism. Most activists maintain the new rules are flawed and spineless. The old rules made it binding on the state to follow the orders of SIC. The information commission could take action under the old rules if a public authority did not comply with its orders. The new rules delete this provision.

Experts believe the new rules will lessen the fear of scrutiny among the corrupt officials. “They will not obey anyone and the RTI applications may get thrown into dustbins,” a civil society activist said. Interestingly, the SIC had recently directed the state government to divulge information about unmarked graves and encounters that took place in J&K since 1989. Besides, the the Chief Secretary of J&K, Madhav Lal, was earlier asked by SIC to direct all the top bureaucrats in the state to share information about the official schemes and other development works.

Aghast over the changes, the J&K’s Chief Information Commissioner (CIC) said, “There was no reason to come up with new rules which have taken the soul out of the RTI Act. The government has made SIC toothless. I wonder what forced the government to come up with drastic changes without consulting anyone. Previous rules were framed after giving them a due thought,” the CIC, G R Sufi, said.

The new rules are silent on the SIC’s power to summon the officials, to impose fines and enforce its decisions. They don’t give any clue about the procedure to be adopted if the orders of the SIC were not implemented. The clipping of RTI Act wings recently resulted in protests by RTI activists who called the amendments as an attempt to weaken the RTI Act. “Before making any amendments, the state government should have sought suggestions from public,” an RTI activist said during a street protest in Srinagar.

The new rules have also omitted the easiest method of filing RTI application on non-judicial stamp paper. New guidelines say that fee can be paid by way of cash against proper receipt, demand draft, bankers’ cheque or Indian Postal Order. The fee for any RTI application has been kept at Rs 50 as against Rs 10 in states of India. “The old rules had provisions about the structure and the working of information commission such as division of labor, working hours, vacations etc. The new rules delete all these provisions,” chairman, J&K RTI Movement, Raja Muzaffar Bhat said. As per the RTI Act of 2005, no fee was charged for inspection of records. Moreover, if information was to be provided on a CD or floppy, the rates were Rs 75 and Rs 100 respectively. “There are lots of loopholes in the new rules. It clearly reflects that it is not people friendly. The BPL category has been completely ignored. They will not be able to exercise their rights,” Venkatesh Nayak, Programme Coordinator, Access to Information Program, Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, said. According to new rules, complaints or appeals might be dismissed if similar application is pending with another public authority. “This amounts to imposing curbs on the right of people to seek redress of their grievances,” says Bhat.

The J&K’s opposition party, PDP, has termed the changes as a big blow to accountability. “This government is afraid of everything that

Photo: Bilal Bahadur
Photo: Bilal Bahadur

brings accountability in the system. The enforcement of RTI Act is not possible within the system as the Information Commission has been rendered virtually powerless,” Naeem Akhtar, PDP spokesman said. “Under the new rules, you have to move the High Court to get the SIC’s order implemented. The government with this move has made the SIC defunct. Who will go to High Court to get the orders implemented? The government move has killed the RTI,” noted human rights activist and advocate, Parvez Imroz says.

On his part, Chief Minister, Omar Abdullah, has termed the move as step to bring state at par with centre on information grounds. “It was needed to remove anomalies in the act and bring it at par with the central legislation and the rules framed there under,” he said. Not many people have bought this theory.

However, the political leaders maintain that the bureaucratic hurdles have played a crucial part in scrapping old rules. Sources divulge that a number of notices were shot to top officials by SIC for not obeying the old rules. Pertinently, the SIC sent a communiqu? to the government in April this year in which displeasure over inordinate delay in uploading of information on the websites by the departments as mandated under Section 4 of the Act was expressed.

Sources maintain that SIC’s move to declare Jammu and Kashmir Bank as Public Authority under the Right to Information Act in April this year turned some officials red-faced. Many are asking that in case of shortcomings in old rules, the government should have put the draft of new rules in the public domain for soliciting objections on the pattern of other acts and rules. After all, it was the question of bringing transparency in the functioning of the government and making the administration accountable.

Besides, some RTI activists have raised questions that rules about the functioning of SIC were made without adhering to the provisions of the state as well as Central acts. Moreover, Section 23 which pertains to scrutiny of documents and notice by the Registrar has completely been deleted.”If the government had to make amendments in the rules, it could have done all this in 2010 when some changes were made in the act”, sources said.

Reacting to the curtailment of powers of SIC, PDP president Mehbooba Mufti said, “Weakening of RTI Act would complete the Omar Abdullah government’s systematic demolition of all institutions created in the state to bring transparency and accountability in the system,” she said.

National Executive member and spokesperson of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Dr Jatindra Singh also castigated the government over the new amendments. “The latest move of the government has vindicated the BJP’s stand that National Conference-Congress coalition is not prepared to make itself accountable inspite of repeated assertions of leadership of both the parties”, Dr Singh said.

“There seems to be mischievous intention behind this move. The Government doesn’t want even this institution to grow,” National Panthers Party MLA, Harshdev Singh said. When the cries across valley are getting shriller over the RTI amendments, state coalition partner, Congress, has so far maintained silence over the matter. Interestingly, on August 12, 2005, Sonia Gandhi, as chairperson of National Advisory Council, had written to the then chief minister Mufti Mohammad Sayeed, saying that National Common Minimum Program provides that “the RTI Act will be made more progressive, participatory and meaningful”.

“The union government has accordingly enacted the RTI Act. However, this is not applicable to J&K. In the circumstances and in order to reinforce transparency, accountability and efficiency in governance, you may like to initiate the process of bringing in state legislation in respect to right to information,” reads the letter by Sonia Gandhi.

President State Congress, Saif-u-Din Soz said, “My opinion is that J&K RTI Act and its rules not need any amendments at this stage. It may not therefore have been necessary to change rules unless it was for strengthening the Act further, which I would support whole heartedly.”

Over the assumed silence by his party on the issue, Soz said, “I will study the cabinet decision minutely before making any detailed comments on the issue.” Noted social activist, Nikhil Dey, termed the development unfortunate. “It is highly regrettable that the old rules have been replaced by new ones that are aimed to weaken this important law,” Dey remarked.

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