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Right To Information Act:Counter Productive in Jammu & Kashmir?,by Balraj Puri, 6 August 2007 Print E-mail

Events & Issues

New Delhi, 6 August 2007

Right To Information Act

Counter Productive in Jammu & Kashmir?

By Balraj Puri

The Right to Information Act is the latest and glaring example of the misuse of Article 370, guaranteeing special status to the State of Jammu & Kashmir.

The autonomy that J&K enjoys and the demand for its enlargement can be justified only if it is used for its peoples’ interest and not for strengthening repressive and arbitrary powers of the rulers. Exclusion of jurisdiction of the National Human Rights Commission, 73rd and 74th amendment to the Constitution of India to empower local self governments are some other cases of how Article 370 has been applied to deny democratic rights to the people of the State.

Without compromising its powers under this Article, the State could surely enact better laws than those at the national level, provided it does so only after studying their working. The RTI Act is thus being discussed here in the hope that some remedial measures might still be considered.

In its report on Good Governance in J&K State presented to the Third Roundtable Conference, the working group made a simple recommendation:  that "there should be sensitization of the Right to Information Act, to bring about transparency in the Government." It must have investigated the reasons for its conspicuous failure in the State. In fact, not a single case of a person having got redressal under the RTI Act has been reported or is known.

The reason for the indifference to the use of RTI Act in the State or to seek information about any case is not due to the lack of people’s interest in their problems or that they don’t need such information. It is the lack of a strong voluntary effort to make the people conscious of the right to information and to fully explain why they are not asserting this right. Worse, the main reason is that there are limitations inherent in the State Act and sheer lack of will of the State government to implement it.

The main difference in the State law with that of the Central RTI Act is unlike the latter, it does not provide for the institution of an Information Commission. The Information Commission, for the rest of the country, is appointed at the Centre by the President on the recommendation of a committee consisting of the Prime Minister, leader of the Opposition in Lok Sabha and, a Union Cabinet minister nominated by the Prime Minister. The State Commissions too have similarly been assured of their autonomous character and are to be appointed by the Governor on the recommendation of a committee consisting of the Chief Minister, leader of the Opposition and a Cabinet minister.

The Commission headed by the Chief Information Commissioner is a vital link between the people and the Government. It has the same powers as are vested in a Civil Court. It can summon and enforce attendance of persons and compel them to give oral or written evidence and to produce the document. The Commission, during the inquiry of any complaint under the RTI Act, can examine any record which is under the control of the public authority and "no such record may be withheld from it on any grounds."

As J&K RTI Act does not provide for the appointment of an Information Commission, the complainant is not only deprived of any guidance about the procedure of filing a complaint, but there is no compulsion on the public authority to supply the information sought. Most of the people, including educated people, are unaware of the procedure for filing a complaint and the patience to follow it up.

Further, the list of subjects on which the State government can withhold information is as much as 15 items. It includes advice, including legal advice, opinion or recommendation made by any officer of a public authority during the decision-making process, information which would affect the enforcement of any law, information the disclosure of which would affect the government's ability to manage economy and in general "any record and information which under the Evidence Act is claimed to be privileged."

The in-charge of an office can also regret to supply information to an applicant if the information cannot be complied without considerable financial expenditure or without considerable extra work. Further, a public authority can deny information if it would adversely interfere with its functioning.

There is no Commission to which a person seeking information from the government can approach for guidance if his/her request is rejected. Nor any Court "shall entertain any suit, application or other proceedings in respect of any order made under this Act and no such order shall be called to question"; the Act states categorically and somewhat ominously. The corresponding provisions in the Central Act are far more liberal. In any case the Central Information Commission and the State Information Commissions have wide powers to force the public authorities to provide the necessary information sought by the applicant.

Apart from obvious weaknesses in the State RTI Act which handicap and discourage persons to seek requisite information, an additional factor is the general practice of ministers and legislators to hold durbars to listen to grievances and offer redressal. But this is no substitute for an institutional system for receiving grievances and then offering redressal. More so, because not everybody has access to such durbars. In sum, as far as Right to Information Act of the State is concerned, it is in every sense much worse and regressive than the Central Act.

The people of J&K State specially need good and less corrupt governance. This is possible through empowerment and ready information about the administrative working. And, if it happens, it will reduce the levels of alienation that clearly exist there. ---INFA


(Copyright, India News and Feature Alliance)



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