Referring to allegations of children being held under the Public Safety Act in Jammu and Kashmir, former chief information commissioner Wajahat Habibullah today asserted the need for involving youth in the ongoing debate on current issues in the state.
Habibullah, who was delivering the keynote address at an interactive workshop on J&K Right to Information (RTI) Act in Srinagar, also noted that public confidence in elected governments is undermined if access to routine information about the working of the administration is denied.
He demanded that RTI be used 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, adding that “involving the youth would be a crucial measure to reduce the current atmosphere of discontent.”
It was also pointed out at the meeting that despite the Public Safety Act prohibiting the detention of minors, children had been detained under it.
In his address, vice chancellor of Central University Kashmir (CUK), Professor Mehraj-ud-din said RTI was an invaluable tool for lawyers to get access to facts and records. He also announced the setting up of an 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 of Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, lamented that RTI was 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.
Hazarika also spoke about how 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 (Rtd.) M.S. Khan spoke of the need to protect whistleblowers. He 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.
While a legal expert, Professor Altaf Hussain Ahangar, spoke of the need for using RTI as a tool to redress the grievances of the most disadvantaged segments of society, the sub-divisional magistrate of Srinagar, Dr. Syed Haneef Balkhi said the need of the hour was 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.
Leading RTI activist Venkatesh Nayak made a presentation on key court judgments to explain the developing trends in the RTI-related case law around the country.
One of the most pertinent comments on the importance of RTI came from dean of students welfare at CUK, Dr. Fayaz Ahmad Nika, who while voicing the need for spreading awareness about the RTI Act among the disadvantaged groups said: “Laws will be effective only when people know about them and use them in the right spirit.”