As reported by Faheem Aslam in on 25 August 2011:

Stakeholders pitch for fixing RTI hiccups

Resolution Seeks Proactive Disclosure, Fee Review, Updated Websites

Srinagar, Aug 24: A vital resolution drafted by Right to Information activists has identified over half a dozen ‘problem areas’ in J&K RTI Act of 2009. It has asked the Chief Information Commissioner and the J&K Government to address the problems forthwith for effective implementation of the legislation.

The two-page resolution, signed by 36 RTI activists, from within and outside the state, has been submitted to the CIC, GR Sufi, for onward submission to the J&K government. The resolution, among other issues, has sought bringing down of the RTI application and Xerox fee in the state, protection of RTI activists and proactive disclosure of information for bringing greater transparency in the system of governance.

J&K Right to Information Rules 2009, require an applicant to pay Rs 50 as application fee. This figure is five times more than the application fee of Rs 10 stipulated by the RTI Fee and Cost Rules notified by Government of India. The J&K RTI Rules also stipulates photocopy charges of Rs 10 per copy.

“This amount is very high when compared to the actual photocopy rates in the market. Also, the Central RTI Rules and most other states stipulate a charge of Rs 2 per photocopy. It is recommended that the application fee be brought down to Rs 10 per application. It is also recommended that the additional fees be brought down to Rs 2 per copy for A-3 or A-4 size paper,” reads the resolution. “These changes will require amending the J&K RTI Rules. We urge the State Government and Information Commission to advise the State Government to make these changes.”

The RTI activists have pointed to the problem of “unhelpful attitude of the Public Information Officers”, asserting that RTI users often have to “face hostile and unhelpful attitude from the PIOs. PIOs often ask too many irrelevant questions which intimidate RTI applicants, mostly women and youth.”

The activists, including members from the premiere Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI) New Delhi, have recommended that the General Administration Department must issue detailed instructions laying down code of conduct for PIOs while dealing with RTI applicants. “Politeness and courtesy must characterize such interaction on both sides.”

In a fresh suggestion, the activists have taken a strong exception to the absence of local language versions of the J&K RTI Act. “The Government of J&K has not yet published the J&K RTI Act, 2009 and the J&K RTI Rules in the Urdu language. This makes the J&K RTI Act inaccessible to a large number of people residing in the State who are not familiar with English. Also, many applicants write their RTI applications in Urdu but receive responses from the public authorities in English which they are unable to read and understand,” the document reads.

It recommends that the Government make immediate efforts to translate and publish the J&K RTI Act in the Urdu which is the official language of the state. “Hindi language translation may be provided for use in the Jammu region and other areas where Hindi is spoken. The GAD may issue instructions to all PIOs to respond to applicants in the same language as that used in the RTI application. The information may be provided in the language in which it is held by the public authority for the time being,” the resolution states.

The resolution also says that PIOs in the state are often not aware of their duties and responsibilities under the J&K RTI Act. “They are reluctant to make any decision on the RTI applications on their own. Instead they seek permission from senior officers on every matter,” it says.

Section 23 (d) of the J&K RTI Act, 2009 mandates the State Government to train PIOs of public authorities and produce relevant training material. “It is recommended that the Government of J&K seriously initiate steps to fulfill this obligation. The Information Commission may through its decisions require public authorities to make necessary provisions for training its officials on RTI,” it states.

The activists say harassment and threat to RTI applicants in the state is on the rise. “This is enormously discouraging for individuals working for transparency and accountability in the State.
It is recommended that the J&K State Information Commission advise the State Government to take effective steps to provide security to RTI users. Wherever RTI users are attacked the culprits must be swiftly brought to justice. The information sought by the applicant which led to the harassment of or attack on the applicant must be released publicly in accordance with the provisions of the J&K RTI Act. The State Information Commission should intervene in such matters and ensure the public disclosure of information without delay,” states another resolution.

Section 4(1)(b) of the J&K RTI Act requires all public authorities to disclose information related to its organisational structure; procedures of its decision making process; its norms, rules, regulations, instructions and manuals; a statement of the categories of documents held by it; its public consultation processes; directory of its officers and employees; particulars of budget and expenditure plans; beneficiaries of subsidy schemes and recipients of various concessions and permits and much more. A large majority of the public authorities have not compiled this information. As a result people are compelled to seek the same information by making formal RTI applications which is against the very letter and spirit of proactive disclosure as explained in Section 4(2) of the Act. The intention of this provision is that public authorities should volunteer as much information as possible so that people do not feel the need for filing RTI applications.
“It is recommended that the State Information Commission monitor the performance of public authorities vis-à-vis their proactive disclosure obligations and insist upon improving proactive disclosure in every complaint and appeal case where the request is for information that ought to have been voluntarily disclosed by the public authority under Section 4,” the resolution document states.

The activists have lamented poor state of records management and obsolete websites. “Another major problem that prevents easy access to information is the poor state of records maintenance and management in almost every public authority. Section 4(I)(a) also requires records to be computerized and connected through a network allover the state. However, most public authorities in the state either do not have websites and where websites exist there is very little information is available up to date. “It is recommended that the Government develop a time-bound plan of action and allocate resources for digitizing and networking records and documents in accordance with Section 4(1)(a) of the Act. It is also recommended that the J&K Information Commission may write to Government directing it to update its websites and provide public authorities that do not have their own website with the means and technical expertise to develop and maintain one,” the resolution states.

Finally it has asked the Government to appoint two more information commissioners without any delay. “The J&K Information Commission currently has only one member. The J&K RTI Act provides for the appointment of three more members. These vacancies need to be filled up before the backlog of appeals and complaints becomes unmanageable. It is recommended that the GAD immediately initiate steps to fill up vacancies in the J&K Information Commission in a transparent and participatory manner,” the resolution states.

The resolution has been signed by participants of a workshop held in Srinagar on July 31.