Thursday, April 27, 2017

Separate budget for RTI awareness !

Daily Excelsior: J&K: Thursday, April 27, 2017.
Recently State Chief Information Commissioner (CIC) Mr Khurshid Ahmad Ganai while addressing a roundtable of some selected RTI activists , First Appellate Authorities (FAAs) & Public Information Officers (PIOs) at Srinagar suggested that Government should allocate a separate budget for ensuring more awareness on Right to Information Act (RTI). It is now more than 13 years since we have Right to Information law enforced in J&K. Earlier we had J&K RTI Act 2004 enacted way back in year 2004 by the then PDP-Congress Government and from 2009 onwards we got a more robust RTI law (J&K RTI Act 2009) which is enforced in J&K from March 2009. 
During last 13 years , lot of people have used RTI Act and this has empowered large number of people , but the number of people using this law still remains very less . The reason is quite obvious ie lack of awareness about this law.
During the roundtable on April 6th 2017 , at Institute of Management , Public Administration & Rural Development (IMPA) Srinagar , Chief Information Commissioner (CIC)said that he would suggest to Government to allocate a separate budget for RTI related awareness programmes. This was not a sudden utterance by CIC during the roundtable , but all the stakeholders like senior Government officers who are designated First Appellate Authorities (FAAs) , Public Information Officers (PIOs) & RTI campaigners , activists said in one voice that awareness on RTI Act is very meager across the state.
Legal obligation on Govt:
Asking for a separate budget on RTI awareness is a very legitimate demand of Chief Information Commissioner (CIC). The Government is under legal obligation to create awareness on RTI , but without proper funding and budget such Information Education & Communication (IEC) activities cannot be undertaken by Government or outsourcing them to some reputed NGO’s working on RTI Act. Section 23 of J&K RTI Act 2009 as well as Central RTI Act of 2005 clearly impresses upon the Government to create mass awareness on RTI. Section 23 reads as “Government may develop and organize educational programmes to advance the understanding, of the public, in particular of disadvantaged communities as to how to exercise the rights contemplated under the Act” . From last more than 8 years of enactment of J&K RTI Act 2009 , Government has hardly created awareness on RTI among masses especially the disadvantaged communities. 
Even Government has failed to educate its own officials who deal with RTI cases in Government offices and that is the reason , such officers keep violating J&K RTI Act 2009 and continue to face wrath of State Information Commission (SIC) in one way or the other. CIC Mr Khurshid Ahmad Ganai has impressed upon Doordarshan & Radio to create awareness on RTI Act. CIC during his roundtable address said that DD and Radio Kashmir must invite people to specially designed programmes wherein RTI activists and other experts on RTI Act would discuss this law and its rules that would be beneficial for general public. Success stories on RTI should be discussed in these programme as that would help people understand this act in a better way.
Conclusion :
People want to use RTI but they don’t know how to go ahead ? People want information why inferior quality material is being used by Government contractors on public works ? People want information about power , water and other related issues , but they have no idea how to seek these details from whom ? Successive Governments have claimed that they have made great achievements by enacting different versions of RTI Act in J&K, but when people do not get benefitted by these legislations , how can we call this an achievement ? Seeking Information from Government is a fundamental right of people. Every time we buy something from a shop, we pay sales tax/VAT/Excise duty etc. along with the price of the item. Every citizen of J&K State or person living in any other state pays tax. The Government collects taxes from us to pay salaries to Government officials , Ministers , MPs, MLA ‘s etc. The developmental works are executed by Government through this tax payers money. So when we pay taxes , should we not hold the Government accountable for what it does for us ? Under J&K Right to Information Act, 2009 we can seek and receive information from any Government office be it the Panchayat , Patwaris office, office of the Municipal Ward Officer or office of the Chief Minister. Public Information Officers (PIO’s) have been appointed in all the offices across our state. Every PIO has a duty to provide information so that citizens have access to Government records and documents. PIO cannot ask an information seeker the reasons why he or she needs the information ? If an information seeker is illiterate , the PIO has to assist him in filing an RTI application. Information seeker can also inspect the Government works , records or documents under section 2 (i) of J&K RTI Act 2009 / RTI Act 2005 . This law is such a beautiful piece of legislation , but the only problem is lack of awareness. We hope that Government will take sincere efforts on ensuring RTI awareness across state and for making this happen a separate budget should be allocated for it. I appeal State Chief Information Commissioner (CIC) to write a formal letter to Government in this regard