RIGHT TO INFORMATION
J-K Government dilutes its strong Right to Information Act without debate
New rules are silent on the State Information Commission’s power to summon officials, impose fines and enforce its decisions
It was billed as a stronger version of the central Right to Information (RTI) Act, and thus an effective tool for exposing corruption in the government but on Thursday 30 August, JK Government diluted the Act by issuing a new set of rules to govern its implementation in the state. Chief Minister Omar Abdullah said this was an attempt to bring the law in line with the central law.
The new rules have taken even the State Information Commissioner G R Sufi by surprise. "The government has made some drastic changes in the rules. There was no need for that," Sufi said. The Information Commissioner feels that the government was obliged to take the SIC on board before issuing fresh rules. “I don’t say that the government doesn’t have power to make RTI rules, but the Commission as a stakeholder should have been consulted,” said Sufi. “There was also a need for a public debate before the change in rules”.
The six-page document which has taken over from the 27-page 2010 rules has undermined the authority of the State Information Commission (SIC). Its power to force the extraction of information from the government departments and institutions has been severely curtailed. The new rules are silent on the SIC’s power to summon the officials, to impose fines and enforce its decisions. What is more, the rules were sprung on people without any public debate or effort to consult SIC, which is a stakeholder in such an exercise under the 2010 rules.
“Under the old rules the State Information Commission could take action if a public authority did not comply with its orders. The new rules delete this provision. So the appellant will have no option but to file a writ in JK High Court to seek enforcement of an order of the Information Commission,” Venkatesh Nayak, coordinator, Access to Information Program told TEHELKA. “How many people can avail this expensive and time consuming option is a big question”.
The state enacted its RTI Act in 2004, a year before the Centre passed it in 2005. The central law is not applicable to JK. However, the 2004 Act was replaced with a new law in 2009 and stronger rules in 2010 which consolidated the powers of SIC enabling it to enforce its decisions. Ever since, the Act has been responsible for introducing an element of accountability into the system in a state that was adjudged as the second most corrupt state in the country in 2005 by Transparency International, India. It was not before long that the hundreds of RTI activists and individuals across the state started using the law to obtain information.
In one case, one Ahmad Malik from Budgam Bashir, who holds a Below Poverty Line card, sought information from Chief Minister’s Office about the misuse of the state helicopter. In response, the state’s Civil Aviation Department revealed that the state exchequer spent Rs 12 crore for ferrying chief minister Omar Abdullah and other ministers to various destinations within the state during the last three years. Another RTI revealed that the Lakes and Waterways Development Authority which oversees the conservation of the famous Dal has spent around Rs 215 crores without producing any tangible improvement in the condition of the lake.
However, the growing power of SIC had begun to cause some unease in the government. Early this year, Chief Information Commissioner summoned the Chief Secretary Madhav Lal asking him to pass strict instructions to all the administrative heads to make the pro-active disclosures about the official schemes and the other development work. This was for the first time that the top bureaucrat was summoned after he failed to respond to the communications from the Commission on the issue. Recently, the Commission directed the police to provide details of all the encounters that took place in the state in the last 21 years after the agency rejected on the security grounds an RTI seeking this information.
On 30 August, the government replaced the old rules with a new version which circumscribe the Commission’s role. The new rules also do not offer any guidance for the first appellate authority on hearing first appeals. “Now the first appellate authorities need to only adhere to the 30-45 day time limit for disposal of first appeals,” says Venkatesh. “There are no other rules applicable to them such as giving the appellant an opportunity to explain his case etc”.
The move came under sharp criticism from PDP president Mehbooba Mufti who has opposed the new rules. She called the move, “An organized attempt by the coalition government to demolish all instruments and institutions of transparency, accountability and probity in public life.”
Riyaz Wani is a Special Correspondent with Tehelka.