RTI – a tool to ensure transparency
By: Syed Rizwan Geelani
Where official information remains highly classified, RTI Act has become a dues ex machina (only hope) for those who want to hold the government and other functionaries accountable before general public, thus ensuring transparency in working of the government offices.
Right to Information (RTI) has become a powerful weapon for ensuring social accountability.
Over the past few years there has been a relentless effort towards recognizing the right to information as a fundamental human right for people in South Asia.
In most countries, right to information has enabled a common citizen to become an active participant in discourses of governance, therefore reiterating role of information as a serious tenet in participation of people in democracy.
Since its introduction in 2009, the Act has been used by majority of the people in our state; however, good number of people is still unaware about the provisions of this powerful tool.
After proper utilization of this Act, public can understand how decisions are being made, how their tax money is being spent, whether public schemes are being implemented properly and also how government officials can be made answerable for their actions.
An RTI activist from North Kashmir’s Pattan (Gund-i-Ibrahim) area, Muhammad Akbar Bhat, who has been filling RTI applications since 2009, has been successful in getting justice by utilizing the provisions of the Act.
A farmer by profession, Bhat also does embroidery work and has been filling RTI applications in different government offices. “I find it as my responsibility to help my society by using this tool,” Bhat says.
Despite associated with his embroidery and farming expertise, Bhat is known as an RTI activist in his locality. “I had no idea about the rights and entitlement, besides RTI Act was Greek to me. But with the passage of time I observed that RTI is one of the most powerful tool to use to get our rights,” he said.
The right to information is considered a powerful tool for checking corruption, abuse of power and mismanagement among public bodies.
Notably several Non-Government Organizations (NGOs) are working in Kashmir valley to educate people, particularly illiterate lot. The NGOs often conduct awareness camps and seminars in order to educate people in rural areas about their rights. “This is the real meaning of education. With the efforts of field team of Indo-Global Social Service Society who sensitized me and other people in the village on various acts,” Bhat said, adding, “I got aware about the RTI rules and act in general after the intervention of this NGO. I attended several workshops and realized that I can do something for the society and my area in particular.”
Bhat started filing RTI applications in government offices in 2009 and till date has filed 70 applications. “But none of the applications were filed for my personal scores. I sought information regarding several issues which were related to the society,” he said.
Bhat filed his first RTI in the office of Chief Post Master General (CPMG), Srinagar as one of the Branches of Post office was established in his village in 2000. However, the branch manager had started working at his residence which was far away from the actual area.
“The branch was shifted to its actual location after I filed an RTI application. It is still functioning there now,” Bhat said.
Other information which he sought under RTI Act includes schemes in Animal Husbandry Department for BPL families, besides other information in scores of departments.
Bhat however, extends his gratitude to State Information Commission (SIC), which according to him played its role to safeguard his rights. “I was not aware of the procedures if I was denied the information. But SIC came forward and helped me to get the information,” he said.
Bhat opines that if people in rural areas are made aware about the RTI Act it can play a pivotal role. “It can empower the people so that they demand their rights. There are some issues which don’t get solved through other means.”
Bhat is praised by locals for his contribution towards the society in getting their issues resolved. Muhammad Akbar Bhat desires to lead his people towards the right direction. “I am doing it for the humanity and with a mission,” he said.
Another activist from Nowgam Hajin area in North Kashmir’s Sonawari constituency, Mushtaq Ahmad Batoo has been very supportive for his villagers after he started filing RTI applications in different government departments. Batoo filed RTI application in Public Health Engineering (PHE) department in 2012, later he filed another RTI in Mechanical Civil Engineering Department besides several RTI applications in Power Development Department (PDD).
“Most of the departments denied me the information and tried to bribe me. It was very hectic as well chaotic for me to deal with the concerned Public Information Officer (PIO),” Batoo said.
Batoo has however faced many hurdles in getting the requisite information from the government departments. “But RTI is the best tool in the village and villagers feel empowered whenever they utilize this tool,” Batoo says.
This constructive engagement between public authorities and citizens which addresses public issues makes RTI an important social accountability tool and gives voice to people. RTI laws and provisions outline certain key provisions that highlight rights and responsibilities of citizens and government respectively.
Four years after its implementation, there are still avenues for improvement in different aspects. Levels of awareness and the slow pace of computerization of government records are still low. Suo moto disclosures by the government departments are still not as high as mandated by the Act.
Another pressing problem is the lack of training of relevant government officials who are to function as Public Information Officers (PIOs). This results in delays in responding to applicants within the stipulated time (30 days).
“We are often denied the information under RTI Act by concerned PIOs and SIC has to intervene to get our issued addressed,” Bhat said.
Hailing from North Kashmir’s Shilvat village in Bandipora district, Ashiq Hussain Malla has remained an active participant as far as the RTI Act is concerned. Malla has filed many RTI applications in different government departments in his area. He filed his first RTI application in Agriculture department, Block Development Office, Social Welfare Office and Power Development Department.
“I got the exact information from every department, no scheme was misused and funds were utilized properly”.
However, Malla has succeeded in surfacing the irregularities in Rural Development Department wherein the concerned BDO had not distributed National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) cards among the labourers.
Hailing from Hanjiweera area in district Baramulla Ghulam Hassan Rather, who is an orchardist, has been actively filing RTI applications in order to get public issues resolved. He has devoted much of his time for the welfare of his area. “I was not aware about the Act and its impact. I had no knowledge about the acts, rights, and entitlements guaranteed in the constitution for the welfare of masses,” he said, adding that it was all with the goodwill of NGO he came to know about his rights and entitlements as an individual.
“I don’t file an RTI application to harass any government official but to get our rights. I feel satisfied that I am working for the welfare of the people. RTI has really empowered a common man,” Rather said.
There are plenty of examples on how the use of RTI has improved livelihoods by providing much-needed information on government entitlements, government schemes, and allocated to local governments and so on.
But there is still space for improvement with regard to the impediments that RTI activists face at each stage of RTI implementation.
Chief Information Commissioner, G R Sufi opines that besides taking the information from the government departments all the RTI activists after retrieving the same must take the information to Vigilance Organization (VO) and Crime Branch (CB) for prompt action.
He said RTI was a way for setting out the regime of transparency and accountability in the working system. “Unfortunately people have a problem of being cynical towards the use of Right to Information (RTI) act in J&K state,” he said, adding that people have become cynical in some aspects. “I request all the activists to appreciate even a little change taking place in the society towards improvement in the system,” he said.
He said RTI was a way for setting out the regime of transparency and accountability in the working system. “People can seek information to promote accountability and transparency in working of every public authority. Not only government authorities but private sector also comes under its provision.”
Sufi said instead of blaming the government for poor implementation of RTI Act, there was a need to ask RTI user, how the Act was being used by them. “It needs to be looked into. We must not blame public authority or our chief minister for this. Information sought from public authority is not to be pocketed.”
Disclaimer: (The article is part of Indo Global Social Service Society’s (IGSSS) Media Traineeship Programme under European Union’s EIDHR project jointly implemented with Welthungerhife in J & K. The views expressed in this publication do not necessarily reflect views of European Commission, Welthungerhilfe and Indo Global Social Service Society).
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