Dear all,

Readers may recollect that in October 2010, the Government of India had appointed a group of three interlocutors to hold sustained dialogue with all sections of the people in Jammu and Kashmir in order to find solutions to the several problems faced by them. Well known journalist Dileep Padgaonkar, Dr. Radha Kumar, Trustee Delhi Policy Group and Mr. M M Ansari, former Information Commissioner, Central Information Commissioner formed this group. A press release issued through the Government controlled Press Information Bureau (PIB) explained the purpose of this group as follows:

" Keeping in view the immediate objectives to maintain peace and order and defuse the situation in J&K through confidence building measures, Government of India had taken certain decisions and one of the decisions was to appoint a Group of Interlocutors under the chairmanship of an Eminent person to hold a sustained dialogue with all sections of the people in Jammu and Kashmir."

The complete text of the press release is available at: Here

After holding several rounds of consultations with various parties, segments and interest groups the Group of Interlocutors submitted its report to the Government of India in October this year. The Government has been reading this report in secrecy.

Our partner, Dr. Muzaffar Bhat, Convener Jammu and Kashmir RTI Movement waited for more than a month for the Government of India to proactively disclose the contents of the report. However his expectation was in vain. In November, more than a month after the submission of the report, he filed a formal written request with the Ministry of Home Affairs, seeking a copy of the report. A scanned copy of the request is attached.

Last week the Public Information Officer of the Ministry rejected the request for the report stating as follows:

"I am directed to refer to your RTI application dated 17th November 2011, received in this Division on 30th November, 2011 vide OM No A-43020/01/2011-RTI dated 28th November 2011 and to say that the information sought by you cannot be provided as it attracts the provisions of Section 8(1)(a) and (c) of the RTI Act, 2005."

The rejection order ended with thecontact details of the first appellate authority to whom the applicant may submit a review of the said decision within 30 days.

What is wrong with this rejection order?
The PIO has dealt with the RTI application in an amateurish manner without due application of mind. First, he seems to be writing on the orders of some unnamed senior or superior officer. This is not allowed under the Right to Information Act, 2005 (RTI Act) as the PIO is required to make a decision of disclosure or otherwise on his own without being dependent on the advice or guidance of any other officer. However he is free to seek the assistance of any other officer, even a superior one in order to deal with the request. Yet instead of using one's statutory powers the PIO has merely conveyed the decision of his senior officers not to dislcose the information. This is nothing but an abdication of one's statutory duty.

The PIO has also mechanically invoked two exemption clauses to deny access to the report. Section 8(1)(a) which he has invoked has eight specific grounds on exemption can be claimed. It reads as follows:

"8. (1) Notwithstanding anything contained in this Act, there shall be no obligation to give any citizen,

(a) information, disclosure of which would prejudicially affect the sovereignty and integrity of India, the security, strategic, scientific or economic interests of the State, relation with foreign State or lead to incitement of an offence;"

Yet the PIO has failed to specify which of the eight grounds is attracted by the request for disclousre. Surely grounds such as 'scientific' and 'economic' interests do not apply even by the wildest of imaginations.

Section 8(1)(c) which the PIO has invoked covers parliamentary privilege. It reads as follows:

"8. (1) Notwithstanding anything contained in this Act, there shall be no obligation to give any citizen, X X X X X X

(c) information, the disclosure of which would cause a breach of privilege of Parliament or the State Legislature;"

It is clear from the PIB press release cited above that the Group of Interlocutors was established by an executive resolution, not by any resolution of Parliament. Given this clarity about the origin of this group, invoking the exemption relating to parliamentary ar legislative privilege makes little sense. In any case Parlimentary privileges have not been condified yet in India. So it would be interesting to see how the PIO will justify the denial of access during the appeals stage.

Even as Dr. Muzaffar Bhat battles it out to obtain authentic information from the Government, some details of the report have been leaked to the media. For example, Tehelka published a story highlighting some of the recommendations allegedly contained in the report. The complete story is accessible at: Here

It is an irony that two of the three authors of the report are from professions that have a direct relationship with transparency. Mr. Padgaonkar is a respectable senior journalist who has worked for brining in greater transparency in public affairs. Mr. M M Ansari was appointed as a member of the first batch of Information Commissioners under the Central Right to Information Act in 2005. Yet none of them have been able to prevail upon the Government to release the contents of the report in order to facilitate greater debate in Jammu and Kashmir as well as in other parts of the country. This is another episode which shows the deep chasm between promise and practice of transparency in Government. Every other formal request for information requires a long legal battle to be waged. But leaks come easy (thank heavens!). So much for the establishment of the regime of transparency in India as desired by the RTI Act.

It would be interesting to know if the report has been shared with the State Government of Jammu and Kashmir. Perhaps Dr. Bhat should file a request with the State Government as well.

Further readings:

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Thanks

Venkatesh Nayak

Programme Coordinator

Access to Information Programme

Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative

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