Saturday, June 17, 2017

Why less RTIs for development ? : Dr Raja Muzaffar Bhat

Daily Excelsior: Srinagar: Saturday, June 17, 2017.
During an RTI roundtable at Anantnag recently , State Chief Information Commissioner (CIC)  Khurshid Ahmad Ganai revealed some alarming facts. He said that very less RTI applications are being filed in the Government departments that deal with development. Mr Ganai probably compiled these details by counting the number of  2nd appeals that are filed before the State Information Commission (SIC) for disposal. On the other hand very less number of information seekers follow their RTI cases as per the provisions of RTI law. According to my personal observation only 10 to 20 % of people who are denied information by PIOs or are provided misleading and incomplete information file appeals or complaints before State Information Commission (SIC). The main reason is lack of RTI awareness among masses. People are seldom aware about various provisions of RTI Act. I get at least one or two calls daily wherein people complain that they have not been provided information under RTI even after a lapse of requisite 30 days. These RTI applicants are not at all aware that after 30 days they  can file 1st appeal before a senior officer (First Appellate Authority , FAA) and then 2nd appeal before State Information Commission (SIC).
I am of this opinion that only such cases land in the J&K State Information Commission wherein people have some personal grievances like denied information from Public Service Commission (PSC) , Services Selection Recruitment Board (SSRB) , land dispute , grant of building permissions by municipal authorities or other similar issues. People who file 2nd appeal before State Information Commission (SIC) are usually educated and well informed. Illiterate un educated and people belonging to far off places hardly know what an Information Commission is all about ?
Why developmental cases don’t come to SIC ?
People do seek information on developmental issues. Infact I can say with authority that most of the RTIs are filed in developmental departments such as Rural Development Department , Public Works Department (PWD), Social Welfare Department etc. Among Government  developmental organisations most of the RTI applications are filed before Block Development Officers (BDOs) of Rural Development Department (RDD). People who are denied entitlement under rural housing scheme in order to build a pressure on BDO office seek beneficiary list under PMs Awas Yojna which was previously called Indira Awas Yojna (IAY). Many RTI applicants who claim that they were entitled to get monetary benefit under PMAY or IAY are promised this entitlement by BDO’s ,Village Level Workers (VLWs) or Panchayat Secretaries after aggrieved  file RTI applications. So these cases hardly go for 1st appeal or 2nd appeal before the State Information Commission (SIC). If some applicants are not promised anything , they are not aware about 1st and 2nd appeals so in that case also the appeals don’t reach to SIC.
Disadvantaged communities don’t have access to SIC :
People from disadvantaged communities have been given several benefits under J&K RTI Act 2009. First of all they are exempted from paying even Rs 10 RTI application fees. Secondly they are to be assisted by Public Information Officers (PIOs) during drafting of RTI application in case they don’t know how to write an RTI application. Third benefit for them under RTI Act is that  Government is duty bound to create awareness on RTI Act especially among the disadvantaged communities. But in-spite of all these legal provisions under the State RTI Act  poor, illiterate and people from disadvantaged communities hardly have access to State Information Commission (SIC) where they can plead their cases. Even if such people seek information under RTI , they cannot file 1st or 2nd appeals as they are not guided about the same. If some information seekers are well informed about RTI , they cannot afford to travel all along to Srinagar or Jammu city where State Information Commission (SIC) has its offices . Only handful of such people seek justice from SIC and such people are usually motivated either by RTI activists or some public spirited citizens. In-fact we have been trying our best to assist people from marginalized communities from last 10 years, but due to limited resources our volunteers cannot reach out to such people in all the  22 districts of state. But in-spite of all this I can proudly say that we under the banner of J&K RTI Movement  have tried our best to assist people vis a vis RTI awareness without being paid for it by Government or any other institution.
Separate budget for RTI awareness:
During his first interaction with RTI activists, First Appellate Authorities (FAAs) &Public Information Officers (PIOs) at Srinagar Chief Information Commissioner Mr Khurshid Ahmad Ganai suggested that Government should allocate a separate budget for ensuring 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. In  March 2009 this law was repealed and  we got a more robust RTI law (J&K RTI Act 2009)  which is enforced in J&K as on date. During last 13 years , lots of citizens have used RTI Act and this has empowered large number of people , but the number of people using this law still remains very less . At an average only 1000 applications have been filed in each district as per the recent information available with State Information Commission (SIC) . The reason is quite obvious ie Lack of Awareness about RTI Act.
Conclusion :
Separate budget for RTI awareness is a very legitimate demand of Chief Information Commissioner (CIC)  Khurshid Ahmad Ganai. The Government is under legal obligation to create awareness on RTI , but without proper funding and budget , Information Education & Communication (IEC) activities cannot be undertaken by Government or outsourcing the same to organizations working on RTI promotion in state. If RTI applications filed in Developmental Departments are not followed at the level of First Appellate Authorities (FAAs) or State Information Commission (SIC), I won’t blame information seekers for it. In-fact Government is responsible for all this as they do not adhere to the provisions of section 23 of J&K RTI Act 2009 wherein they have to reach out to people especially disadvantaged communities and make them understand the provisions of RTI Act. During these public reach-out programmes Government was supposed to organize RTI melas , workshops , seminars and other similar activities. It is my humble submission that Chief Information Commissioner  Khurshid Ahmad Ganai  should organize some 2nd appeal hearings on the pattern of Lok Adalats in far off districts  like Kupwara, Kishtwar , Doda , Bandipora etc so that appellants  from these districts will not  only get relief at doorsteps but this activity will also generate awareness about RTI. When people will well understand the role of State Information Commission (SIC) , I am sure RTIs filed before development departments will be followed by people from the office of PIO to the office of Chief  Information Commissioner (CIC).