Lawyer Abid Jeelani would spend his evenings helping people draft queries under the Right to Information law which allows citizens to demand information from the government. “Everyday somebody would approach me through someone’s reference,” said the 28-year-old who practices in Ganderbal district court in Kashmir. “I would finish my court work and then help them out.”

But over the past year, the visitors have stopped coming. “I think people realise they won’t get the information they want to,” he said.

Activist Sheikh Ghulam Rasool would spend thousands of rupees accessing government documents through RTI law – he recalls spending Rs 12,000 on getting photocopies once.

“Such was the zeal that Rs 12,000 didn’t matter,” said the 44-year-old who heads the Jammu and Kashmir RTI movement. “I knew that the information we will get would be more valuable than the money.”

In 2013, for instance, the movement revealed through RTI that 66 civilians had died in explosions on pasture land in Budgam district that the Indian Army had been using as an artillery firing range since 1964. The revelation had sparked public anger. The next year, the Jammu and Kashmir government declined the army’s request to renew the lease.

But Rasool is now less hopeful of such breakthroughs. This January, when his team filed 17 RTI applications, they asked themselves: “Are we wasting our money?”

Lawyer Abid Jeelani has filed over 100 RTI applications.

A weaker law

What has dampened their enthusiasm is the loss of Jammu and Kashmir’s Right to Information law.

In August 2019, when the Jammu and Kashmir Reorganisation Act was passed in Indian Parliament, it effectively ended the special status of Jammu and Kashmir under the Constitution of India and split the erstwhile state into two union territories. The Act also repealed at least 153 state laws of the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir and extended 106 central laws to the newly formed union territory.

One of the repealed state laws was the Jammu and Kashmir Right to Information Act, 2009. It now stands replaced by the centrally-passed Right to Information Act, 2005.

Activists and lawyers say the central law is less progressive than the state law.

One of the differences, Rasool explained, was that the state law mandated that appeals that went up to the state information commission be disposed of within 60-120 days. “In the central act, there is no such time-frame for the commission to dispose of appeals,” he said.

The state law also had stringent provisions to punish officers who failed to respond to RTI applications. It gave more teeth to the first appellate authority against an erring Public Information Officer.

Public Information Officers are officers designated by the government departments to provide information requested by the citizens under the Right to Information Act. The First Appellate Authority is a senior rank official in a government department before whom a citizen can appeal if a Public Information Officer is unable to provide information to the applicant within 30 days.

“If a first appellate authority of a government department received regular complaints from the public about a Public Information Officer denying them information, the J&K act gave him the power to recommend a penalty against that official,” explained Rasool, the RTI activist. “It ensured accountability.”

Both these provisions which set the central act apart from the state law are gone now.

As a result, RTI activists say it is harder now to investigate misgovernance and corruption and hold public authorities accountable.

“When the August 5 decision was announced, it was claimed that there will be no more corruption in Jammu and Kashmir but the reality is that we have been deprived of a key tool to expose corruption,” said Rasool. Echoing widespread concerns over Delhi cementing its grip over the region, he added: “In the absence of any accountability and transparency, the selling out of Jammu and Kashmir’s resources to outsiders will be easier.”

A powerful instrument

For the people of Kashmir, the Right to Information law came as a boon in 2009, RTI activists. It enabled them to expose large-scale human rights violations by security forces.

In July 2017, a young law student affiliated with the RTI movement filed an application seeking information about the detentions under the infamous Jammu and Kashmir Public Safety Act. The preventive detention law allows the authorities to detain an individual without trial for up to two years.

“The reply revealed that around 1,000 petitions seeking quashing of detentions under Public Safety Act were filed before the Jammu and Kashmir High court from March 2016, out of which 764 detention orders were quashed by the court,” said Rasool. “This revealed the brazen and arbitrary use of the law to imprison people.”

Other revelations were related to corruption. In 2012, RTI activists unearthed a scam in the medical college entrance exams held by the Jammu and Kashmir Board of Professional Entrance Examinations. The exam papers were being sold for a fee. In 2018, a special anti-corruption court convicted 43 people for the leakage, including the former head of the board.

Empowered citizens

But it wasn’t just social activists who used the Right to Information law.

Mushtaq Ahmad Lone’s tryst with the transparency law began in 2011 when his father lost his food ration benefits under the Antyodaya Anna Yojana scheme, which allocated 35 kg of rice monthly at Rs 3 per kg to impoverished families.

“The villager elder and Numberdar suddenly removed him from the list of deserving beneficiaries,” recalled the 32-year-old resident of remote Batwodder village in Budgam district who works as a labourer in Srinagar’s fruit mandi. “I ran from pillar to post within the district administration but no action was taken.”

It was during one of the visits to government departments that someone suggested that Lone contact Right to Information activists. “The activists would meet villagers after Friday prayers and sensitise locals about the benefits of the act,” he said.

A round of meetings with the activists culminated in the filing of Lone’s first Right to Information application. “It was in Urdu. I asked about the details of those persons who were allotted Antyodaya Anna Yojana ration cards,” he remembered.

The reply was swift and made him an instant hero in his village. “The RTI revealed that around 5-6 well-to-do families in the village were reaping benefits through the special ration card scheme,” Lone recalled.

Since then, Lone, who had dropped out of school because of his family’s economic circumstances, went on to file over 150 requests under RTI seeking information on local healthcare, waste management, rural development, electricity and food and supplies.

In one of his RTI requests, he asked about the status of a government building in Surasyar village which had been built to serve as the office of the local revenue department but had been lying vacant for five years. “The department was operating from a rented room four kilometres away from the village,” said Lone.

Within 20 days of his application, the office shifted into the new building.

Mushtaq Ahmad Lone turned to RTI to fight a personal battle and then became a civic activist.

Appeals process moves to Delhi

Since August 2019, however, Lone’s activism has lost steam. He has filed five RTI queries but received responses to only one. “Had I filed these five applications under our own RTI act, I would have got 100% response,” he said.

Rasool recounted a similar experience. “Let’s say when we had the state RTI act, around 80% of our applications would elicit some kind of response, although not entirely satisfactory,” he said. That response rate with the union territory administration has dropped to 20%, he claimed.

Another problem, he said, was it had become more difficult to file appeals and complaints in cases where officials had turned down information requests.

Days before the official transition of Jammu and Kashmir into a union territory on October 31, 2019, the Jammu and Kashmir administration had abolished seven accountability commissions of the erstwhile state. One of the abolished commissions was Jammu and Kashmir State Information Commission, constituted under the state law.

In December 2019, over 31,000 pending appeals and complaints with the commission were transferred to the Central Information Commission in Delhi. This meant RTI activists would now have to travel all the way to Delhi to be heard.

But the bigger problem, they say, is pendency: the Central Information Commission is overburdened with appeals filed across India.

“Around 1,000 of our appeals are pending with the commission, including the old ones transferred to the Central Information Commission,” said Rasool.

Lone said four of his appeals were pending too. The delay in the hearings was emboldening officials to turn a blind eye to RTI queries. “It is as if the officers know that hardly anybody will follow up on his application with the commission in Delhi or get a timely hearing there. So they don’t bother to reply.”

Some have asked for a bench of the Central Information Commission to be set up within Jammu and Kashmir. On January 18, prominent RTI activist Raja Muzaffar Bhat raised the demand during a meeting with Lieutenant Governor Manoj Sinha in Srinagar. “The LG was very positive and heard us patiently. He even remarked that these are achievable points,” Bhat said.

Activist Raja Muzaffar Bhat is hopeful of the authorities setting up a a bench of the Central Information Commission within Jammu and Kashmir.

‘Spirit of RTI is gone’

But even if a bench of the Central Information Commission is established in Jammu and Kashmir, it wouldn’t mean much, others point out.

“The spirit of RTI is gone because our own RTI act has been repealed,” said Jeelani, the young lawyer in Ganderbal district court, who estimates filing over 100 RTI applications since 2014.

Some of his applications focused on discerning the impact of the Amarnath Yatra on local governance in Ganderbal, as district officials were diverted to pilgrimage management duties. Others revealed the Central University of Kashmir was paying annual rent of Rs 4 crore for temporary buildings in the absence of a permanent campus.

Jeelani often helped working-class seeking accountability from the government. In the early part of 2019, for instance, casual labourers working for the government sought his help to file RTI applications to enquire about their employment status. They had been promised regular jobs that had not materialised. The RTI applications helped, said Jeelani: “Many of the deserving were indeed regularised.”

But after the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir formally transitioned into a union territory in October 2019, Jeelani stopped filing Right to Information applications. He said he felt demotivated because of the poor accountability provisions under the central RTI law.

“Even though Jammu and Kashmir is a conflict-ridden state, we knew our Act was more progressive than the central Act.” he said. “It was a blessing and now it is gone.”