SAVE THE ACT FROM GETTING MISUSED AT THE HANDS OF UNSCRUPULOUS ELEMENTS
The essence of egalitarianism is transparency and transparency can thrive only in an atmosphere of unimpeded flow of information and highest degree of accountability regarding every feature of democratic system. Chocking information regarding affairs of governance gives rise to enormous ambiguity and thus democracy loses its sense of government ‘by the people’. In India a law of ‘right to information’ was passed by the parliament on 15th June 2005 and came into force on 13th of October 2005. This law empowered every citizen (excepting people of Jammu & Kashmir state) to seek information from any public authority with certain riders regarding sovereignty, integrity and security of the country. On these lines, Jammu & Kashmir state right to information Act, 2009 came into force on 20th of March 2009 after being passed by the state legislature and getting subsequent assent by the Governor. Both these Acts of ‘right to information’ are revolutionary and historic political resolutions and can prove instrumental for ultimate transparency, leading to social justice in the society. Indian polity has added a new chapter to its otherwise below par democracy to get it on the rails of transparency and accountability. Empowering people makes democracy vibrant and strengthening clarity within the democratic system. It replaces dubiousness with piety.
A couple of months back I filed several RTI (right to information) applications regarding few matters of public interest. In one issue I had sought details of service record of a particular high ranking officer. After lapse of stipulated thirty days period as envisaged in the RTI act, I was made to believe that service record details of the officer concerned can not be revealed under section ‘8’ (exemption from disclosure of information) of Jammu and Kashmir right to information Act, 2009. While persuading the related PIO (public information officer) my plea was simple that the service book of the subject officer is record of agreement of service and subsequent developments related to the contract of employment between the employer and the employee. In this particular case the employer being the state government, so the denial of information can not be masked under the clause, ‘exemption from disclosure of information’. In another case I had sought details of CSS (Centrally Sponsored Schemes) in a particular department with reference to a specified field. In this case only details of approved schemes and allotment of funds were provided with no mention of details regarding the beneficiaries. Interestingly, the incomplete information opened a can of worms in the shape of diversification of funds earmarked for centrally sponsored schemes (CSS). The whole jugglery of diversification had been done and craftily revealed in the information in a way as if nothing wrong stands committed. Subsequent, RTI application to pursue the matter was filed and its outcome (hopefully starling) is awaited. During this whole process of exploration of facts I was subjected to all sorts of hurdles and indirect acts of intimidation. Simple mention of RTI invited many prying looks and within no time from a welcome visitor my status became that of an intruder. That is how at present I am able to sum up the destiny of our prospective tool of empowerment– J & K Right to Information Act, 2009.
Jammu & Kashmir being rated as second corrupt state of India after Bihar in recent times desperately needed this revolutionary and curative law. After much resistance from many quarters this historic Act got in place on 20th of March 2009 making the state to march on an, otherwise, bumpy road of transparency and accountability. Laws are mere laws, unless practiced and implemented in letter and sprit. No legal provision can provide relief to common man, unless it is handled by an empowered system of delivery. Jammu and Kashmir has a long history of exploitation, nepotism and corruption, thus any step towards transparency through unhindered flow of information regarding affairs of the state will be a mile stone in the history of this state with tormented and plundered populace. Having said all this, it is more important to ensure that these significant laws are allowed to facilitate the movement of transparency, impartiality and honesty in almost all spheres of governance and practical life. These major legal leaps should not become tools of exploitation by vested interests and platform of hiding the ambiguous happenings within the system.
My experience, as described in the start and accounts of many other RTI activists points towards two major shortfalls of the RTI law both at the centre and in the state of Jammu and Kashmir. One is lack of knowledge, both within the people and the information providers and secondly reluctance in providing information by the concerned agencies along with lack of effective punitive measures against such sluggish and erring authorities. Unless, remedial procedures against these two main loopholes are strengthened, this remarkable movement initiated by the right thinking people will die its own death at the hands of exploiters and wrongdoers. Before enacting such laws, government should have devised a multi faceted publicity and awareness program for effectiveness and deep penetration of such measures of enormous public interest. However, even at this juncture, for effectiveness of RTI act, steps of receptiveness can be initiated with a great deal of efforts. In case of authorities denying the information on one or the other pretext or defending their acts of denial of information, they should be dealt with severely not only under the existing provisions of the law but law itself should be strengthened by making necessary incorporations and changes from time to time as per the requirement.
In present state of its existence, the RTI act in state of Jammu and Kashmir is raw by all means. Public authorities are unaware of their obligations regarding the act. PIOs (public information officer) are not aware of their duties and rights and the appellate authorities are either ignorant or in many cases are unaware of their designation as appellate authority. Such sorry state of affair regarding this ambitious legal provision of empowerment will make mockery of it and people will lose interest in any future sensible acts of cleansing the system. In a system where service records will be classified as ‘personal information’ and declared exempted from disclosure as public information; partially revealed information is fudged and information seekers are intimidated, persecuted and humiliated: what will be the fate of real issues of ambiguity? Where, issues of financial mismanagement and diversification of schemes and funds will be made to hide under the layers of jugglery of expenditure statements and progress reports, that place by no means will permit, such legal regulations of accountability to succeed.