It is six years since Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government launched the Digital India campaign to make government services available electronically. The campaign also assured citizens of improvements in internet connectivity. There is, however, little progress ongoing digital when it comes to the Right to Information Act. RAJA MUZAFFAR BHAT explains what the hurdles are in this report from Kashmir.
HE COVID-19 pandemic was perhaps the best time to realise these dreams of Digital India, as citizen-government interactions almost came to a halt between April and September last year. However, except for the online meetings it held, the government did little to create a digital interface.
In Jammu and Kashmir, the situation was depressing, as the government has not even provided elementary digital services to citizens. The government snapped 4G internet services in the region after 5 August 2019 and did not restore them until 6 February 2021. If even 2G services were available, people could have uploaded their RTI applications on various RTI portals of the government, but in Jammu and Kashmir, and many other states, this was not the case. It complicated the situation immensely for RTI applicants.
SC notice to states and Union Territories
On 26 August 2019, a Supreme Court bench headed by Justice NV Ramana issued notices to the Centre and state governments/Union Territories after a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) was filed seeking the facility to file RTI applications online. The PIL was filed by the NGO, Pravasi Legal Cell, through its lawyer Jose Abraham. The NGO empowers Non-Resident Indians (NRIs) and Indians who work in foreign countries and wanted all state governments to allow online/electronic RTI applications. Abraham described the RTI Act as a powerful tool but said its objectives are met only if applicants get information without delay, electronically.
“One of the most effective provisions in the RTI Act is section 7(1) which states that ‘information sought for concerns the life or liberty of a person, the same shall be provided within 48 hours of the receipt of the request’ is not effective under the existing system and it severely affects the life and liberty of citizens,” the petition says.
Earlier, the central government had directed the National Informatics Centre (NIC) to provide technical support such as software and source code to state governments that wished to provide online filing of RTI applications. Except for a handful of states such as Maharashtra, Delhi, Karnataka, and Uttar Pradesh, states did not take up this option.
Obtaining IPOs too difficult
An Indian Postal Order or IPO must get attached to every RTI application, but getting one is challenging. An IPO is one way to pay the application fees, other than cash, a bankers’ cheque, or demand draft. I can say with some authority that IPOs are unavailable in 80% of the Post offices in the Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir.
I have ten years of field research experience in this field, so I know IPOs are only available from the General Post Office (GPO) at Srinagar. The smaller post offices hardly sell any IPOs, in Srinagar or other districts of the Kashmir Valley. So, people have to travel to Srinagar to get IPOs. Or, IPOs are available in a handful of district post offices.
The central government had directed the National Informatics Centre (NIC) to provide technical support such as software and source code to state governments that wished to provide online filing of RTI applications. Except for a handful of states such as Maharashtra, Delhi, Karnataka, and Uttar Pradesh, states did not take up this option.
In 2016, I sought details of the number of postal orders supplied to ten post offices of Kashmir valley from the GPO, Srinagar. However, the designated Public Information Officer (the Senior Post Master at the GPO) refused to share this information. He gave a misleading reply that information under the RTI Act cannot be provided in an excel format, as I had wanted. It is nothing but a cruel joke! His reply, sent via speed post and dated 20 June 2016, says, “The Information sought…in an excel format does not fall under the purview of section 2(F) of Right to Information Act 2005.”
Those days, the Valley was under curfew following Kashmiri militant commander Burhan Wani’s death. So, I could not follow up this case with the State or Central Information Commission (CIC).
Now, the petitioner in the PIL filed in the Supreme Court has very rightly mentioned that even NRIs find it very difficult to access information from any public authority since there is only a physical application process. Imagine how agonisingly difficult it must be for people living overseas to obtain an IPO!
SC notice to 25 High Courts
In another case, in January, the Supreme Court also issued notices to the 25 High Courts for failing to receive RTI applications through an online portal even 15 years after the RTI Act, 2005. This related to another PIL filed in November 2020 by an Agra-based lawyer and RTI activist, KC Jain. A bench of Justice Nageshwara Rao, Justice Indu Malhotra, and Justice Vineet Saran, after hearing a writ petition on 13 January, also issued a notice seeking the response of the government of India.
I can say with some authority that IPOs are unavailable in 80% of the Post offices in the Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir. I have ten years of field research experience in this field, so I know IPOs are only available from the General Post Office (GPO) at Srinagar. The smaller post offices hardly sell any IPOs in the Valley. People have to travel to Srinagar or get IPOs from a handful of district post offices.
In his petition, KC Jain says that anyone seeking information from any court under the RTI Act has to write a physical application and obtain an IPO or bank draft to pay the application fees, although section 6(1) allows email applications, or via a designated portal.
Section 6(1) of the RTI Act 2006 says, “A person, who desires to obtain any information under this Act, shall make a request in writing or through electronic means in English or Hindi in the official language of the area in which the application is being made, accompanying such fee as may be prescribed, to (a) the Central Public Information Officer or State Public Information Officer, as the case may be, of the concerned public authority.”
If the RTI Act is clear that electronic applications have to be accepted, why don’t state governments, Union Territories, and high courts set up portals or explore other ways to make it happen?
J&K High Court violating RTI Act 2005
In October 2020, I filed an RTI application before the Jammu and Kashmir High Court (via Speed Post receipt number EE811342042 IN). The online tracking information says it reached the office of the designated PIO on 16 October. I had sought information on the remuneration of various amicus curiae appointed in PILs, a copy of the report of an expert committee set up by the Jammu and Kashmir High Court related to a PIL on the rejuvenation of the Dal Lake, and so on.
The concerned PIO did not respond to my application for over a month. On 22 December 2020, I filed the first appeal before the Registrar General, the First Appellate Authority (FAA) of the Jammu and Kashmir High Court. I then got a cryptic reply from the PIO (number 600, dated 19 January 2021) with some details I had sought. However, it also said the report of the expert committee still under sealed cover. It is inexplicable why the report is sealed. The Registrar General has not adjudicated my appeal although more than three months have passed. I will now move to the Central Information Commission (CIC) with a second appeal.
RTI via email by a BPL applicant
These days, hectic advocacy is on to make RTI go digital. Yet, ironically, public authorities, including the higher judiciary, are not implementing its provisions. The Supreme Court needs to take note of this. It will revolutionise governance if all state governments, high courts, and subordinate judiciary start receiving RTI applications online. That is how to fulfill the Digital India dream.
A few days ago, I assisted an applicant with sending an RTI application via email to a District Panchayat Officer (DPO) in Jammu and Kashmir. Those who are in the Below Poverty Line (BPL) category have to attach their ration card with their RTI application and send it to the PIO via email, which exempts them from paying Rs. 10 application fees. However, one must know how to use email and have the contact information of the PIO.
Immediately after the applicant submitted the RTI application via email, he called the officer concerned and she acknowledged receipt of the application. The very next day, the application was transferred to the concerned Block Development Office (BDO) via WhatsApp. I am sure this applicant will get information within a week, not have to wait for 30 days. Technology is more convenient and quick when it comes to using RTI services, and making it go digital will bring in the transparency this law envisages.
Judicial Intervention, only Hope
Almost all central ministries have established online RTI portals for Indian citizens including NRIs. Applicants can even submit their fees digitally. In 2013, the government of India had advised all state governments and Union Territories to explore the possibility of implementing online RTIs. Eight years have passed with no progress. This is sheer negligence that needs serious attention. Judicial intervention is the only hope now.
(Raja Muzaffar Bhat is a Srinagar-based activist, columnist, and independent researcher. The views are personal.)