Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Public Authorities in Jammu and Kashmir Not Complying With RTI Rules, Finds Study

The Wire: New Delhi: Tuesday, March 21, 2017.
A rapid study of the official websites of 230 public authorities under the Jammu and Kashmir government has revealed that nine years after the implementation of the J&K Right to Information Act, compliance with the requirement of proactive disclosure of information under its section 4(1)(b) remains poor. Based on the official websites, 59% of the districts not having uploaded information under the section to a reasonable degree and nearly 75% of them have not been uploading their annual budgets.
The rapid study emerged out of an internship programme hosted by the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI) in New Delhi for advocates Syed Iram Quadri and Bilal Ahmed Bhat, both members of J&K RTI Movement and the School for Rural Development and Environment (SRDE). The report was later compiled by CHRI and J&K RTI Movement. Its findings were discussed at the Institute of Management, Public Administration and Rural Development (IMPA) in Srinagar today to identify practical recommendations for improving compliance with section 4(1)(b).
According to Venkatesh Nayak of CHRI, section 4(1)(b) of the J&K RTI Act makes it compulsory for all public authorities to place a wealth of information in the public domain. This includes detailed information about their organisation and functions, powers and duties of their officials, rules, regulations, norms and  manuals that must guide their work, details of decision-making processes, budgets and expenditure, subsidiary programmes implemented, authorisations and permits issued and a list of all records held in paper or electronic form. In addition, every public authority is required to publicise relevant facts about all important policy matters or decisions it takes from time to time.
“The purpose of proactively disclosing all this information is to reduce people’s need to seek information by filing formal RTI applications,” said Nayak, adding that in practice the district authorities have been found to be lacking in making proactive disclosures.
District officers fail to be RTI role models
The study revealed that while divisional commissioners and all districts in Jammu and Kashmir have official websites, in 59% of the cases, information provided on the sites was either incomplete or completely absent.
Moreover, about three-fourths of district websites do not display any information about their annual budgets, the only exceptions being Bandipora and Budgam which have put out their latest budget-related information for 2016-17.
The study has also given a thumbs up to the Kargil district website for being the best among all the districts. “Detailed information about the working of the Deputy Commissioner’s office and other departments in the district has been published in compliance with the J&K RTI Act,” it said.
Similarly, it lauded Udhampur district administration for being the only one to display the physical verification reports of the developmental projects undertaken under various programmes up to 2016.
Using innovation to improve transparency
The rapid study has also pointed out how some of the districts have taken innovative steps to display other categories of information proactively. “Doda district website displays property statements of the officials of the DC’s office, and the tehsildars and the total number of various types of ration cards issued by the administration, tehsil-wise. Websites of Samba, Rajouri and Pulwama display the number of complaints received under the J&K Public Services Grievances Act, 2011. However this information is also not regularly updated,” said Nayak.
The study also points to a sorry situation: over 15% of the remaining 209 public authorities (other than divisional commissioners and district administrations) in J&K covered by the study do not have websites. But what it finds inexplicable is why over 42% of the 177 public authorities with official websites do not display any information required to be proactively disclosed.
Thirty-two public authorities silent
For those wanting to seek information under the RTI Act, what is even more worrisome is that 32 public authorities in the state have not even bothered to provide details regarding the public information officers and first appellate authorities designated for dealing with RTI applications and first appeals.
Though proactive disclosure also covers annual budgets, the study showed that 138 public authorities with websites have not displayed budget-related information. Only two public authorities have displayed budget-related information for the latest year, 2017-18 the Finance Department and the Directorate of Audit and Inspections and six others have displayed budget related information for the year 2016-17.
CM’s office not revealing budget details
The report finds that the issue of compliance is lacking right from the chief minister’s secretariat, whose website states that the “Chief Minister’s Secretariat does not have budget allocation for any programme nor it has any agency under its direct control.” This runs contrary to the information provided by the Finance Department on money allocated to the council of ministers and the chief minister’s secretariat in 2017-18.
According to it, the council of ministers has been allocated Rs 752.80 lakh. The chief minister’s secretariat  general administration department has been provided a salary, travel expenses and medical reimbursement grant of Rs 54.80 lakh, and secret services expenses of Rs 15 crore.
As for the governor’s office or Raj Bhawan, the study revealed that its budget-related section of the RTI Handbook (Manual) has not been updated after 2014-15, indicating a clear disinclination to comply strictly with the RTI rules.