Since 28th of September 2022 is the International Day for Universal Access to Information and this year’s theme for the day is “Artificial intelligence, e-governance and access to information”, it would have been better if role of Artificial Intelligence and e-governance in improving access to information in this digital world could be discussed. But with respect to J&K it is not feasible keeping in consideration the current status of the Right to Information in comparison with the time before the abrogation of Article 370. Through this article I will try to critically analyse the difference between the Right to Information of people in Jammu and Kashmir and the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir. When article 370 was abrogated, some news channels carried the headline that “J&K people can now exercise the right to access information from public authorities”. Consequent to the passing of J&K Reorganisation Act 2019, the J&K Right to Information Act 2009 and the Rules there under were repealed and Right to Information Act 2005 and the Rules there under were enforced from 31-October-2019. Nobody at that time could make people aware that our own J&K’s RTI Law is much stronger and the Central RTI Act would only weaken the Right to Information mechanism in UT of Jammu and Kashmir. We were under curfew and with no internet and calling facility we were imprisoned with no Right to Information and freedom of expression. After a few weeks of Article 370 abrogation when I went to Chandigarh I accessed a pic of the front page of a local newspaper of J&K circulated on social media wherein again it was written that “now the people will have right to information”. It literally hurts a lot when you see the front page of the newspaper publishing some misleading information and it has been now more than three years that even RTI activists are dissatisfied over the status of newly applicable Central RTI Act 2005 in the UT of Jammu and Kashmir. September 28 is celebrated as the International Day for Universal Access to Information and it would not be wrong if I jot down here some of the clear cut differences in the status of right to access information before October 31, 2019 and after it.
Status of “Right to information” in Jammu and Kashmir
Before Reorganisation of J&K After Reorganisation of J&K
Jammu and Kashmir State had Jammu and Kashmir Right to information Act 2009 UT of Jammu and Kashmir has Central Right to Information Act 2005
The Jammu and Kashmir RTI Act permitted the establishment of a three-member J&K State Information Commission. No separate commission for UT of J&K
Second Appeals/Complaints were heard at Jammu/Srinagar Second Appeals/Complaints are heard at CIC, New Delhi
The State Information Commission was required to decide appeals within 60-120 days as per the J&K RTI Act 2009. People in J&K have to wait for a long time for their appeals to be decided as the Central law does not fix a time limit for the CIC.
The waiting period for listing appeals and complaints in the CIC was a few weeks as they was an obligation to decide appeals within 60-120 days The waiting period for appeals and complaints in the CIC has been more than one year being experienced by the appellants and complainants.
The caseload at SIC was less. Pendencies were around 400 only at the time of reorganization of J&K. The overall caseload at CIC is very high. It is in the thousands.
J&K RTI Act 2009 contained a provision for the first appellate authority to make a reference against an errant PIO to the information commission to impose a penalty. The Central Act, unlike the state Act does not contain any provision for the first appellate authority to make a reference against an errant PIO to the information commission to impose a penalty.
Only the residents of Jammu & Kashmir could file RTI applications to avail information from the state public authorities. Any citizen from any part of the country can file an RTI application to any public authority of Jammu & Kashmir Union Territory.
Average hearing of cases per week at SIC (State Information Commission) was more. Average hearing of cases per week at CIC (Central Information Commission) is less for J&K.
There were lesser number of exemptions (nine to be precise) in J&K state law i.e. J&K RTI Act 2009. There are more exemptions (ten to be precise) in Central RTI Act 2005.
Some workshops were held by the State Information Commissioners wherein activists, PIO’s/FAA’s and researchers used to participate. No workshops have been held so far after enforcement of Central RTI Act 2005 in the UT of J&K
There was a website of J&K SIC i.e. www.jksic.nic.in wherein details of all the second appeals/complaints and copies of decisions were available with respect to J&K. No separate website which could act as a repository of information is available for J&K. Only decisions given by CIC are available at the central website.
All the Information Commissioners were form J&K No Information Commissioner is from J&K
Applicants could easily plead their cases in Kashmiri and other local languages before SIC. Applicants are not able to plead their cases effectively in other languages like Hindi or English before CIC.
Further, as per the Annual Report 2020-21 of CIC that is available at https://cic.gov.in/sites/default/files/Reports/Eng-AR2020-21.pdf on CIC’s website, only 7 (seven) Public Authorities in the UT of Jammu and Kashmir have submitted RTI Annual Return which is just 17.50% percentage compliance i.e. the least among the 94 Ministries/Independent Departments as given in the annual report. The average compliance is 95.91% and 68 ministries/independent departments show 100% compliance as per this report. This shows how low the compliance in Jammu and Kashmir is even after the introduction of Central RTI Act 2005. Based on my research, as on 26 September 2022, only around 850 cases have been decided at the CIC and the RTI Activists in J&K are saying that this is a very less number and the barriers like, distance, language; work culture and internet/connectivity are affecting the appellants very badly. Since this year’s theme of the International Day for Universal Access to Information focuses upon using Artificial Intelligence and e-governance to improve access to information in this digital world, I would rather suggest the government to at least launch an RTI Portal for J&K and train the PIO’s and FAA’s and appoint at least one IC from each of the divisions of J&K so that decisions could be arrived at properly.
(The author is a Research Scholar and Founder of J&K RTI Foundation. Views are his own)