Kashmir’s information warriors

(The Hindu)

Where the citizen-government gap is bridged by using the RTI Act for administrative reforms

April 18, 2014 is a day the shepherds around Budgam town near Srinagar will not forget. This was the day when Tosa Maidan — a vast pasture that shepherds from seven districts traditionally grazed their livestock in — was reclaimed from the Indian Army.

Leased out to the Army in 1964, Tosa Maidan or ‘the king of the meadows’ had been turned into a firing range, a hazardous place where landmines often went off, killing or seriously maiming herdsmen.

It was only in 2009 that Sheikh Ghulam Rasool, chairman of the Jammu and Kashmir Right to Information (RTI) movement and a government doctor in Srinagar, became aware of the residents’ predicament. “I visited Shunglipora (in Budgam district) to conduct a health camp and found that every third woman there was a widow of a shepherd who had died in Tosa Maidan,” he said. That was when the doctor decided to bring together people of the area to demand justice.

He roped in Pir Sheikh Ghulam Moinuddin, a faith-healer popular with the villagers, to rally support. “I trained the Pir and some local people to use RTI and obtain data to challenge local authorities,” Dr. Rasool said. Soon the Tosa Maidan Bachao Front was born.

In 2014, when the Army’s lease came close to expiring, the people began to pressure the local authorities to not renew it. They filed RTIs to get hold of official documents and put together figures on deaths of shepherds from landmine blasts to strengthen their cause. The local revenue department relented and annulled the lease.

In Jammu and Kashmir, where public confidence in the government is very low, the RTI Act has given citizens an opportunity to meaningfully engage with the government. While the rest of India got the RTI Act in 2005,

the law was adopted in J&K only in 2008. However, the law here has stronger provisions. For instance, information appeals filed with the State Information Commission (in cases where RTI queries are not answered by the intended government departments) have to be disposed within 60 days. This time-bound delivery system has helped with speedy redress and encouraged several citizens to come forward to seek crucial information.

In 2013-14, as many as 29,846 RTI requests were received by various public authorities, an impressive 40-fold rise from 2009-10 when only 741 RTI requests were received.

Said Venkatesh Nayak, Coordinator of the Access to Information Programme at Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI), “By pelting stones or pursuing separatist agendas, ordinary citizens cannot hope to resolve their day-to-day grievances or secure their basic entitlements from the government. This is where the RTI Act comes in.”

CHRI has conducted training workshops for both RTI activists and government departments on how to make the most of the law. The spontaneous people’s movement has seen around 20-25% women members and several representatives from the younger generation, many of them school dropouts. “The best thing about the movement is that everyone volunteers, and activists pay the RTI application fees out of their own pockets,” Nayak said.

Hanifa, who represents the Bakarwal Gujjar community in Khansaheb tehsil of Budgam, filed an RTI in November 2016 to find out details of funding allocations in the MNREGA programme in her village. She received only partial information, and went on to appeal to the State Information Commission. Significantly, the district officials have begun to provide employment to her community under the MNREGA, something they had not done so far.

Several citizens are using the law to fix problems in the public distribution system, to follow up on insurance claims or to challenge the encroachment of forest land by real-estate developers.

The movement has also empowered those seeking justice against atrocities committed on citizens by the security establishment.

In July, 2017, Adeela Shah, a young law student in Srinagar, filed an RTI with the Jammu and Kashmir High Court seeking

details of cases quashed under the Jammu and Kashmir Public Safety Act, 1978 (PSA), considered a draconian law allowing for preventive detention of citizens.

The RTI response revealed that of the 941 petitions filed in the court for quashing charges framed under the PSA since March 2016, as many as 764 orders were approved for quashing: this revealed how most charges framed under the law could not stand up to judicial scrutiny.

RTI activists have also sought information on disappearances, pellet injuries sustained by citizens, and extra-judicial killings.

Moinuddin unearthed corruption in the distribution of the Indira Awas Yojana (IAY) funds meant for building houses for the poor. Speaking a few months ago at the fifth National RTI convention organised by the National Campaign for People’s Right to Information (NCPRI), he recalled: “The first RTI I filed was with the Block Development Officer (BDO) in Budgam, demanding to know who the beneficiaries of the IAY programme were.”

The officer initially refused to give the details. Instead, the BDO offered Moinuddin a cheque for ₹25,000 to take back his RTI, he claims. “I told him I did not need his money, I just needed the information.”

Finally, the information was released and it revealed that local MLAs were using IAY funds to favour residents who voted for them and that Below Poverty Line families weren’t necessarily the beneficiaries.

However, citizens have not always succeeded in getting the information they seek. Requests have been denied under section 8(1) (a) of the RTI Act, citing security reasons. Also, post offices remain shut on many days due to the security situation, because of which citizens are unable to post RTI applications. Besides, for a large State like J&K there are only three information commissioners available; the last Annual Report was put out by the State Information Commission in 2013-14.

But despite these hurdles, as Moinuddin said, staying silent has not been an option for Kashmir’s information warriors. He quotes Iqbal: Ye khamosh mizaji tumhe jeene nahi degi/ Is daur mein jeena hai to kohra macha do. Read More