Srinagar: Former IAS officer Wajahat Habibullah today asserted here that public confidence in elected governments is undermined if access to routine information about the working of the administration is denied.
Delivering the keynote address at a day-long interactive workshop on the J&K RTI Act at the Central University Kashmir, Habibullah, former Chief Information Commissioner and Chairman of the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI), described RTI as an instrument for building public trust in the government.
“RTI enables the public and government to work together to find solutions to problems of governance and development”, he said. Urging every effort to be made to involve youth in the ongoing debate on current issues, he referred to allegations that children were being held under Public Safety Act despite an amendment prohibiting the detention of persons aged less than 18 years. Involving the youth would be a crucial measure to reduce the current atmosphere of discontent.
There were about 60 participants at the workshop including faculty members, representatives of the University administration and students of the Faculty of Law.
Delivering the Presidential Address, Prof. Mehraj ud Din, Vice Chancellor, Central University Kashmir, described RTI as an invaluable tool for lawyers to get access to facts and records. The Vice Chancellor announced the setting up of a RTI Clinic in the University’s Law Department to help and train RTI applicants in seeking information under the law.
Speaking of the need to use RTI as a tool for data-driven research, Sanjoy Hazarika, Director, CHRI, said RTI is rarely used by academics for research. He pointed out that data on a large number of government websites was often dated. “Data tells stories, stories give perspective, perspective gives the space for asking questions and interrogating the norm”, he said. He pointed out that RTI opened up opportunities for researchers to access official data which was not easily available otherwise and provide feedback to government for inclusion in processes and policies.
Justice (retd.) M. S. Khan lamented that there was no mechanism for protecting an RTI applicant who seeks information to demand transparency and accountability for wrongdoing in public authorities. As a result, several citizens have lost their lives or have been brutally attacked for seeking information across the country, he pointed out.
Prof. Altaf Hussain Ahangar, Legal Expert, expressed his satisfaction over the availability of RTI as a tool for the most disadvantaged segments of society to seek redress of their grievances.
Dr. Syed Haneef Balkhi, SDM Srinagar, pointed out that there is a need to reduce the time taken for supplying information to RTI applicants from the present outer limit of 30 days. This will ensure speedy disposal of cases. He said that the administration is serious about implementing the RTI law in letter and spirit despite challenges that the public may experience at lower levels of bureaucracy.
Dr. Shaikh Ghulam Rasool, Chairperson, J&K RTI Movement, explained the evolution of RTI in J&K and presented several case studies of unlettered and impoverished people using the law effectively to demand accountability for misuse of public funds and illegal diversion of resources.
Venkatesh Nayak, Prorgramme Coordinator, CHRI gave a presentation on key court judgements to explain the developing trends in the RTI-related case law around the country.
Welcoming the gathering Dr. Fayaz Ahmad Nika, Dean, Students Welfare, CUK voiced the need for spreading awareness about the J&K RTI Act amongst the vulnerable and disadvantaged segments of society. “Laws will be effective only when people know about them and use them in the right spirit”, he said.
Proposing the vote of thanks, Professor Sheikh Showkat, Dean Faculty of Legal Studies, CUK, assured that more such interactive workshops will be conducted in collaboration with CHRI and J&K RTI Movement in future. (KNS)