New Delhi: Kashmir, which has been a theatre of conflict for decades and recently dubbed the second most corrupt state in the country, may, for the first time, guarantee its citizens access to government records, like the rest of the country.
The state government is planning to strengthen the Right To Information (RTI) regime by setting up a dedicated State Information Commission, pruning the exempted documents list and giving citizens access to even Cabinet decisions and file notings.
“We plan to make significant changes in the RTI Act in order to widen its scope and ensure accountability,” says Khurshid A. Ganai, principal secretary to the Jammu and Kashmir government.
However, security agencies and the defence forces stationed in the strife-torn state, which have on many occasions been accused of human rights violations, are likely to be exempt from the updated Act.
Kashmir is the only state in the country where the RTI regime has not worked as the existing Act does not even provide for a dedicated information commission.
The state’s move is expected to beef up the now watered down version of the RTI Act used in the state, and to set in place a machinery that will hold bureaucrats accountable for supplying information sought by citizens.
Some senior politicians in the state, however, want the new RTI regime to be of help in cases of human rights violations as well.
“We have additional problems of human rights violations and people disappearing across the state. It will be great if people start asking for information and if the state is forced to become accountable (in such cases) and on deployment of funds, etc.,” says Mehbooba Mufti, the Peoples’ Democratic Party president who represents Anantnag in the Lok Sabha.
In the three years since the Act was implemented, only 50 RTI applications have been received by officers in charge and controlling officers of various departments in the state. In comparison, the Central Information Commission (CIC), in the last two years alone has received over 4,000 cases and state commissions in Gujarat, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Mahrashtra, for example, have received thousands of cases each.
“It is ridiculous as a government servant (in Kashmir) can just sit on the RTI application and do nothing,” says an official with the CIC, whose expertise was sought to prepare a draft Bill by the Jammu and Kashmir government.
The Central RTI Act, which came into force in 2005, extends to all parts of the country except Jammu and Kashmir due to its special constitutional status. The legislation passed by the Jammu and Kashmir assembly, the Jammu and Kashmir RTI Act, 2004, is weak as it has no provisions to hold erring information authorities accountable and does not stipulate penalties.
Under the present Jammu and Kashmir Act, authorities can even reject requests for information on the ground that collection of the information would cost considerable expense and time.
According to Ganai, a draft Bill has been prepared to amend the RTI Act. “It will be soon sent to the Cabinet and, if approved, will be put up before the assembly in the coming session,” he said.
The Bill is expected to change nomenclature of the RTI officers and also cut down on the long list of documents that are exempt.
The attempt, says Ganai, is to bring the state Act “in line with the Central Act,” with one exception. As per the Central Act, applications pertaining to security agencies and the defence forces, who are usually exempt from the Act, can be accepted if they pertain to human rights violations.
“However, we have not included any specific provision to allow for human rights related petitions as we already have the state human rights commission in place to take care of such cases,” Gani said.
Central Information Commissioner Wajahat Habibullah said the move to strengthen the RTI regime in Kashmir was a “significant milestone”. According to the him, a state information commission in Kashmir can go a long way in improving transparency in the state.
According to the Congress MP from Jammu, Madan Lal Sharma, the state’s chief minister Ghulam Nabi Azad has recently highlighted that, of the Rs5,500 crore Central assistance given to the state, only about Rs1,000 crore has been used. Said Sharma: “Soon, people will be able to keep track of the various schemes and measures implemented by the government using RTI.”