Srinagar, Mar 20: “RTI is like a ten Rupee PIL in the hands of citizens who can use it to seek and obtain information about public interest matters”, said Central Information Commissioner Prof. M. Sridhar Acharyulu while addressing a gathering RTI activists, academics, lawyers, journalists and students here.
Speaking at a public event organised by J&K RTI Movement (led by Dr. Shaikh Ghulam Rasool) and Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, to celebrate 14 years of RTI in J&K, at the Centre for Central Asian Studies, University of Kashmir, Prof. Acharyulu said, RTI is a great tool for empowering citizens. He appreciated the enthusiastic manner in which activists were using the RTI Act in J&K to demand greater transparency and accountability in Government, especially in far flung villages of the State.
He urged the academic community and transparency advocates to analyse the decisions of Courts and Information Commissions to assess whether they are in tune with the letter and spirit of the RTI Act.
He lamented the fact that while it has become commonplace for many Governments to challenge in Courts, decisions of Information Commissions directing disclosure, citizens are not able to challenge refusals due to lack of legal assistance and inadequate resources.
Participants unanimously endorsed Prof. Acharyulu’s call to make political parties in J&K transparent. Even though the CIC had declared six national political parties public authorities udner the Central RTI Act in 2013, they have remained stubbornly non-compliant till date.
Wajahat Habibullah, former Chief Information Commissioner, CIC and Chairperson, CHRI, said that under the RTI Act, all information was required to be disclose unless exempt under Section 8.
He urged Governments to appoint sincere and honest candidates as Information Commissioners from other fields of specialisations mentioned in the Act instead of only retired civil servants. He expressed disappointment over the fact that no civil society representative had been appointed as Chief Information Commissioner anywhere, yet.
Habibullah said that there was no mechanism to enforce suo motu disclosure provisions in the RTI Act because of which, people are compelled to file RTI applications for information that public authorities should have disclosed voluntarily.
Prominent RTI activist, Advocate Irfan Hafiz Lone from Baramulla appreciated the efforts of the J&K RTI Movement to groom RTI activists in every district of J&K. He emphasised that transparency is a prerequisite for the rule of law and RTI is an antidote to check corruption – the mother of all problems of governance. He pointed out that the J&K RTI Act contained the important democratic principle that information which cannot be denied to Parliament or State Legislature cannot be denied to any citizen. However officials often ignore this principle while dealing with RTI applications from citizens.
Presenting the preliminary findings of an analysis of more than 250 decisions of the J&K State Information Commission issued between April 2017 and January 2018, Adeela Firdous, Sumaila Qureshi and Naveed Bukhtiyar, Law students of KU and Shikha Chhibbar, Programme Officer, CHRI, pointed out that more than 58% of the appeals and complaints related to matters of public interest.
This finding explodes the myth being propagated by some officials that RTI is used by people more for redressing personal grievances. They also pointed out that while the J&KSIC had issued penalty showcause notices in 19 cases, penalty was yet to be imposed on any officer.
In fact, in more than 46% cases they studied, penalty should have been imposed as the PIO had simply not replied to the RTI applications or had refused to comply with the directions issued by the first appellate authorities to disclose the information.
This study was undertaken by the KU students during their internship at CHRI in February, 2018. They pointed out that only 7% of the cases were filed before the J&KSIC by women, showing the poor levels of awareness about RTI among them.
Dr. Shaikh Ghulam Rasool invited students and conscientious citizens to join the RTI Movement in the State and use the law to expose corruption and instances of mal-governance in the State.
He pointed out that the solidarity feeling which unites the members of the movement is a major reason why there are no deaths of RTI activists in J&K. As of now 68 RTI activists have been allegedly murdered for seeking information about wrongdoing in Government in other parts of India.
Several grass roots level activists from Budgam, Kathua, Bandipora and Baramulla shared their stories of successful use of RTI to make government transparent and accountable which served as an inspiration to students and other participants.
Prof. GN Khaki, Director, Centre for Central Asian Studies (CCAS) welcomed the gathering and invited J&K RTI Movement and CHRI to hold more such collaborative events in future with the Centre. Dr. Fayaz Lone Asst. Professor, CCAS and Venkatesh Nayak, Programme Coordinator, CHRI moderated the event.