Generally, it is an accepted fact that the pendency of second appeals and complaints in central and state information commissions is often over a year or two.
However, it was not so in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K). The J&K state Right to Information (RTI) Act (now it is a Union Territory—UT) was implemented in 2009 with some of the rules more effective than those of the central RTI Act. One of them was that the second appeal hearing should be held mandatorily within 45 days. And it was delivered!
However, after J&K turned into a union territory after the abrogation of Article 370, the central information commission (CIC) hears second appeals and complaints of RTI applicants residing here and not the J&K’s state information commission, as used to be the case. Nearly four years after the implementation of the central RTI Act, most of the residents are not happy. They feel as if the RTI Act does not exist at all and their right to the dissemination of information has been suppressed.
Take the case of the very recent CIC decisions by the chief information commissioner, Yashwant Sinha:
• RTI information sought from J&K Small Scale Industries Development Corporation (SICOP) was filed on 21 September 2021, the second appeal was received on 1 March 2022 and the date of the CIC decision was 19 March 2023.
• RTI information sought about the expenditure of public funds from the block development officer of Bandipora in J&K was filed in December 2021, the second appeal was received in March 2022 and it came up for hearing on 19 April 2023 and was disposed.
• In the third case, the information sought under RTI from the land acquisition collector of Jammu was filed in January 2018, the second appeal was filed in November 2020 and was heard by CIC Sinha on 19 April 2023 and disposed.
Such inordinate delays are hampering the efficacy of the sunshine law and activists and citizens of J&K are feeling helpless and suffocated, as they are unable to make the public authorities accountable or exposed with the help of certified documents obtained under RTI. When Moneylife contacted one of the powerful voices of this community, Dr Raja Muzaffar Bhat, he rued, “My second appeal regarding J&K Bank is pending for the last 18 months with three adjournments. We feel disempowered post Article 370 as our state RTI Law was better than the Central RTI Act 2005.”
According to the chairman of J&K RTI Movement, people are so demoralised that he assesses a 50% dip in RTI applications since 2019, although a report study stated it was 31%. This has led to the complacency of the public information officers (PIOs) who simply ignore the RTI applications. Rattling off the names of some of them, Dr Bhat says that the PIOs of block development offices; those which disburse Central and state government schemes, the housing board, and rural development departments have no qualms about sitting on RTI applications and even flouting the 30-day deadline of providing replies.
The HC had ordered a time limit of 45 days for second appeals.
In the decision of the high court of Calcutta in W.P. No. 11933 (W) of 2010 Akhil Kumar Roy vs the West Bengal information commission & Ors, the judge had directed that “A second appeal arises from a decision in a first appeal under Section.19(1), and a first appeal arises from a decision or a failure to give a decision under Section.7. The sparkle of a strong strand of speed woven through the sections of the Act is abruptly lost in the second appeal that has been allowed to run wild. This open-ended second appeal scheme is bound to make the Section.6 request go totally adrift generating multi-tier avoidable and unwanted offshoot court proceedings such as in this case.
“In my opinion, keeping in mind the respective maximum periods fixed for deciding a first appeal under s.19(1) and disposal of a request for obtaining information under section 7, the second appellate authority should have decided the second appeal within 45 days from the date of filing thereof. In view of the scheme of the statute, I think this period should be considered a reasonable period for deciding on a second appeal. I am of the view that this petition should be disposed of directing the authority to decide the appeal.”
Thus, the 45-day mandate is for CICs and SCICs across the country. However, is anyone in power listening?
(Vinita Deshmukh is consulting editor of Moneylife. She is also the convener of the Pune Metro Jagruti Abhiyaan. She is the recipient of prestigious awards like the Statesman Award for Rural Reporting, which she won twice in 1998 and 2005 and the Chameli Devi Jain award for outstanding media person for her investigation series on Dow Chemicals. She co-authored the book “To The Last Bullet - The Inspiring Story of A Braveheart - Ashok Kamte” with Vinita Kamte and is the author of “The Mighty Fall”.)