The (Central) RTI Act, 2005 applies to the Union Government of India and all of its states and Union Territories. The state of Jammu & Kashmir (J&K), having been accorded special status under Article 370, had the option of voting through its own Legislative Assembly to adopt the Act or simply to ignore it altogether. J&K chose to finally implement the RTI Act 2009, which is close on the lines of the Central RTI Act 2009, after immense citizen campaign. Until then, the J&K state RTI Act 2004 and J&K RTI (Amendment) Act, 2008, were in use. Now that both Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh are legally Union Territories (UTs), they would have to come under the Central RTI Act 2005.
To reorganise the state of J&K and Ladakh, the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha passed the J&K Reorganisation Bill 2019 last week. Its Section 95 states that all Central laws in Table -1 of the Fifth Schedule to this Act, on and from the appointed day, shall apply to the Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir and also the Union Territory of Ladakh. The Schedule lists 106 Central laws and the RTI Act is one of them.
So, what would be the repercussions? A Union Territory has no right to appoint information commissioners, so the J&K state information commission will be automatically abolished. RTI applicants of J&K will soon have to file their second appeals to one of the Central information commissioners in Delhi. Hence, there could be longer pendencies of second appeals. The J&K state RTI Act 2009 had specific deadlines for information commissioners to dispose of second appeals, which is absent from the Centre’s RTI Act 2005.
States Venkatesh Nayak, research scholar of RTI and programme coordinator of The Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI), “Now people in J&K and Ladakh will have to wait for a long time for their appeals to be decided as the Central law does not fix a time limit for the CIC. Under the state law, the state information commission was required to decide appeals within 60-120 days. The caseload at CIC will also increase manifold, thanks to these changes. Unless concrete steps are taken to address these challenges, the waiting period for appeals and complaints in the CIC may increase beyond the minimum of one year that is currently being experienced by appellants and complainants.’’
Mr Nayak further states, “Further, the Central Act, unlike the state Act does not contain any provision for the first appellate authority to make a reference against an errant PIO to the information commission to impose a penalty. This is another negative impact of the changes being contemplated. Departmental control over PIOs will be reduced further. In fact, the Central RTI Act must include such a positive provision.’’
On the other side, so far, only the residents of Jammu & Kashmir could file RTI applications; now any citizen from any part of the country can file an RTI application to any public authority of Jammu & Kashmir Union Territories.
In the past three years, the J&K state information commission has not filed its annual report; hence there is no clarity on the number of pending second appeals. It is estimated at 400 pendencies, but what will happen to these in terms of time for their disposals and which Central information commissioner would be looking into them?
Since RTI activists in J&K are uncontactable, it was not possible to get their views.
(Vinita Deshmukh is consulting editor of Moneylife, an RTI activist and 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”