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Information seekers warned of dangers

Srinagar, June 05, 2010:

Even if a simple request under Right To Information (RTI) act is a routine in other parts of world, in Kashmir it can lead to dangerous consequences, a Non Government Organisation has warned.

J&K RTI Movement, a coalition of citizen activists supported by Delhi based Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI) has asked people to remain cautious while filing an application for seeking any information from government.

The warning has come after the group reported number of attacks on people trying to use their right to seek information on some developmental works.

“The vested interests never allow citizens to exercise their democratic right. Both in Jammu and Kashmir region of the state the RTI applicants are on hit list of corrupt officers,” said Raman Sharma, a senior member of the J&K RTI Movement.

“And possibly this is the reason that in few cases even FIR’s have been registered against the RTI applicants.”

Sharma cited the example of one Mulk Raj who was forced to flee his home after he filed an RTI application seeking details of the irregularities in a government School in winter capital Jammu.

“After filling his RTI application he was approached by a group of eight to 10 people who threatened him of risk to his life if RTI application is not withdrawn,” said Sharma.

Another person Ghulam Nabi Shah of Badgam district was thrashed after he sought details about the list of people being provided money under various government schemes. Many more have got similar treatment.

Police doest not take cognizance of such cases, Sharma alleged.

Reeling under a twenty year old insurgency, Indian administered Kashmir is regarded one of the most corrupt states in India according to the Transparency International.

The corrupt bureaucracy and lawmakers make a deadly cocktail of corrupt system, which ferociously confront any attempt to reform.

“If somehow a poor RTI applicant dares to file his application, he is forced to withdraw it by all means,” said Sharma. “In many cases the applicant is being approached both physically and on his telephone just after hours after submitting RTI application.”

The group said that the applicant’s identity is revealed by the concerned official or his staff members, putting him in danger.

The RTI Act in India has substantially empowered individuals to gain access to government information, but in Indian administered Kashmir, a similar law is rendered dysfunctional on ground by disinterested politicians.

The state is yet to appoint members of State Information Commission to check which could look into the complaints against officers withholding information. “As there is no body/organization to deal with the cases related to RTI implementation thus the applicants are not served with the reply but often become victims of corrupt officers and their associates,” said Sharma.

Last year Chief Minister Omar Abdullah had requested Chief Information Commissioner of India Wajahat Habibullah to take charge as State Information Commissioner in Indian administered Kashmir, but Habibullah was not relived by the federal government.

After that state government literally slept on appointing any other officer giving rise to speculations that it was a ploy to defer the cent per cent RTI implementation.

To further discourage people from making queries, government has made it a costly affair. An RTI application costs five times more in Indian administered Kashmir than in other Indian states.

“Every effort is made to detract people from lodging RTI applications with sometimes Officers even refusing to entertain application on some trivial and silly grounds,” said Sharma.

The activists say that people feel scared of filing the application. According to recent data released by government of India, the lowest number of RTI application in India have come from Indian administered Kashmir. From March 2009 to February 2010 only 534 RTI applications were received by various state government departments far lesser than Maharshtra’s 440,728 applications during the same period.

The group has issued precautions for intending applicants.

It has advised first time applicants to consult a person who has already made any application under the act or any local RTI activist before filing an application.

In case of seeking sensitive information the group has advised people to file a joint application in the name of 10-15 people, instead of a an individual to diffuse the risk of intimidation.

“One may also take the assistance of any friend or activist residing at some other place so that the exposed person(s) do not make any harm,” said Sharma.

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