Two years ago, on August 5, 2019, the Union government moved a resolution in parliament to read down Article 370 of the constitution of India, which gave the state of Jammu & Kashmir a special status. The government also moved a Bill that divided the state into two Union Territories (UTs), one named Jammu and Kashmir and the other named Ladakh.
Two days after the resolution was approved by parliament and the Bill was passed, Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressed the nation in a television broadcast on August 8, 2019, stating why the Union government had chosen to remove J&K’s special status.
“We have removed the provisions in Article 370 which acted as an impediment to J&K and Ladakh’s development,” Modi said in his address. “The people of Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh were deprived of their rights. With the abrogation of Article 370, the dreams of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, B.R. Ambedkar and Syama Prasad Mookerjee have been fulfilled. A new era in Jammu and Kashmir has now started.”
In the two years since that speech however, only one thing has changed in the UT of J&K: the grievances of the people, especially those from the economically weaker sections of society, have increased. This is because a certain paradox came into play on August 5, 2019. Since the UT is ruled directly by the Union government rather than an elected state government, the people who are able to take their grievances to the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO), the Union ministries or even the office of J&K’s Lieutenant Governor (LG) get quick responses. But those who need the help of local bureaucrats and police officers get nothing but silence and corruption. According to people at the grassroots level, they do not get justice from tehsil, block and district offices, the corruption in police stations, tehsildar offices and municipalities has not reduced and the schemes instituted by the Union government, especially the national flagship schemes, are not implemented in a transparent manner.
The J&K model?
A survey titled ‘Politics and Society between Elections‘ conducted by the Azim Premji University and the Lokniti Programme for Comparative Democracy during the 2019 Lok Sabha elections revealed that citizens would rather approach their local sarpanch (panchayat head) or councillor to have their grievances addressed than their local member of legislative assembly (MLA) or member of parliament (MP).
Also, even if the PMO, the Union ministries and the civil secretariat offices in states and UTs are responsive to citizens, unless the local district or block officer is equally responsive, it cannot be said that the system of governance in practice is effective. But unfortunately, since Article 370 was read down, contact between the district, tehsil and block level officers of J&K and the people of the UT has been minimal.
District magistrates, for example, are supposed to build a rapport with the people they serve. But since 2019 they have been glued so tightly to their cosy office chairs that LG Manoj Sinha was forced to issue a circular a few days ago, asking every DM to visit at least two remote areas in her or his district every Saturday and Wednesday.
Some DMs, when criticised on social media platforms, block the citizens who made the criticism. This has happened to me as well as to others. In one extreme case, when a 2014 batch Indian Administrative Service officer posted as DM of Ganderbal felt insulted by criticism, she even had a social activist arrested and sent to police custody for six days.
This incident took place in mid-June 2021, when 50-year-old Sajad Rashid addressed Baseer Khan, the LG’s advisor, during a public outreach programme in Manasbal, Ganderbal, and said: “I have expectations from you because you are a Kashmiri and can understand our problems. I can catch hold of your collar and seek answers from you but what expectations can I have from the officers who are non-locals?”
Rashid’s remark infuriated the DM who had accompanied Baseer Khan to the outreach programme. That evening, she had Rashid arrested, filing charges against him under section 153 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) which relates to promoting enmity between different groups on grounds of religion, race, place of birth, residence, language and doing acts prejudicial to the maintenance of harmony.
Even though Rashid got bail from a local court the next day, he was kept in preventive detention under section 151 of the IPC for another few days. Had this incident taken place in some other state, the DM would have been transferred elsewhere. But the DM concerned remains in Ganderbal, leaving locals wondering if this is the governance model the Modi government has chosen for J&K.
When J&K was a state with an elected government, political leaders and MLAs acted as bridges between the people and the bureaucracy. But now this bridge has collapsed, leading to chaos, confusion and constant fear. Corrupt police officials and bureaucrats commit vandalism and the people don’t dare to file a complaint. The policy of transferring officers from one place to another to prevent corruption seems to function without reason. While some corrupt officers remain with certain municipal institutions or government offices for six or seven years at a time, other officers are transferred two to three times a year for no apparent cause.
Elected to remain in hotels
On paper, J&K does have some elected local officers. For example, each district has 14 elected district development council (DDC) members whose job is to function as a bridge between the people from the remote areas of their districts and the district administration. But the DDC members are made to stay in hotels close to the district headquarters and are not allowed to venture out despite their protests. Some vice chairpersons and chairpersons of some district councils allege that they don’t even have proper offices and staff. According to the government, the restrictions on the movements of the DDC members are due to security issues. But if these people are the targets of terrorists, why does the government not provide them with adequate security?
The situation with the DDC members is so bad that even Altaf Bukhari, leader of the Apni Party which is considered to be very close to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led Union government, has threatened to have the DDC members elected from his party resign from their posts unless the Modi government remembers its promise to empower local bodies.
Alleging that the DDC members are being hindered by the UT’s administration, Bukhari said on August 2, 2021, that his council members are not allowed to function and that their movements are restricted by the local administration. He also alleged that the district administration officers are non-responsive towards the DDC members, with the result that the people of the constituencies that these DDC members represent must still deal with the district authorities on their own.
Meanwhile, the level of corruption in government offices, police stations and municipalities remains as high as it ever was. The J&K Public Service Guarantee Act was retained by the administration even after Article 370 was read down but it is not respected by government officials. And the Jammu & Kashmir Bank, a digital financial institution, does not provide information under the Right to Information Act (RTI), 2005, by invoking the exemption clause under section 8 of the Act and having deliberately not included an online RTI facility for its users.
PMO closer than BDO
In fact, the RTI Act seems less respected among the district officers of J&K than it is at the Centre. I am witness to the fact that it is easier to access information under the RTI Act from the PMO, the MHA, the Union rural development ministry and the Ministry of Jal Shakti than it is to get it from the office of a DM, head of department or even a tehsil or block level officer in Jammu & Kashmir. But this relatively easy access to information from the Union government does not help the ordinary citizen of J&K whose grievances relate to local matters.
The grievances of ordinary citizens can be addressed only when the local tehsildar, block development officer and police station house officer are accessible and receptive to them. But does New Delhi know that this isn’t happening at all in J&K?
Mushtaq Ahmad, a 31-year-old resident of Bonen village in Budgam district, often accesses information under the RTI Act about the implementation of various developmental schemes and national flagship programmes in J&K. A few months ago, he sought a copy of the detailed project report (DPR) of a nine km-long road project from Bonyar to Goggee Pathri via Kutabal in Budgam’s Surasyar block, constructed under the Pradhan Mantri Grameen Sadak Yojna (PMGSY). Mushtaq alleges that the work was not done according to the specifications mentioned in the DPR and that the road was damaged within six months of its construction.
Mushtaq sought his copy of the DPR directly from the PMO because the Budgam office of the PMGSY had failed to provide the same information to some locals in the past.
I had also sought the same information about the same road project last year, but when my RTI application arrived at the PMGSY Budgam office from the PMO, I was asked to pay Rs 15,000 to get a copy of the DPR.
According to the provisions of the RTI Act, 2005, the Public Information Officer cannot charge photocopying fees if the information is provided more than 30 days after the RTI application. More than three months had passed after my application when the executive engineer of the PMGSY Budgam demanded fees of Rs 15,000 from me. When I escalated the matter to more senior officials, nothing was done. What makes matters worse is that the information I was seeking should actually have been available on the PMGSY’s official website in J&K or on Budgam district’s official website, www.budgam.nic.in. But it was not. Incidentally, the PMGSY in J&K has no official website.
Voluntary disclosure of information (emphasis mine) is actually mandatory under section 4 (1) (b) of the RTI Act 2005, but government offices rarely upload useful information on their official websites. I tried my best to seek district plans and DPRs of road projects, water supply schemes and health and education schemes on the official district websites of Budgam and some other districts, but nothing was available.
In contrast to this lack of local information, the beneficiary list under the National Food Security Act (NFSA) is available on the national portal. This proactive disclosure helped to streamline the public distribution system and stop government ration storekeepers from cheating their poor customers. However, the upload of the beneficiary list happened only after volunteers launched a digital literacy campaign among poor consumers two years ago that showed them exactly what they were entitled to. The corruption nexus was broken with the cooperation of the secretary of the Department of Food, Civil Supplies and Consumer Affairs in the J&K administration, but the officials involved in the scam are yet to be taken to task.
Other than the NFSA, most government departments continue to execute works with total secrecy. Financial details such as work expenditure, budget allocation and utilisation certificates are rarely uploaded on government websites. Aggrieved people can seek this kind of information via the RTI Act, but the institution of RTI has been weakened in J&K since 2019 when the erstwhile J&K State Information Commission was shut down.
To file a complaint or an appeal under the RTI Act, 2005, in the Central Information Commission is a herculean task. In the first place, these appeals are listed only after a year or so. Under the J&K RTI Act 2009 (which was repealed in 2019), it was mandatory for the J&K State Information Commission to dispose of RTI appeals within 60 to 120 days. Institutions such as the J&K State Women’s Commission, J&K State Accountability Commission, J&K State Consumer Protection Commission and J&K State Human Rights Commission were also closed in 2019. Nobody knows what has happened to the cases that had been pending for disposal in these commissions.
Stuck in Budgam
Mushtaq filed his application for the DPR of the road project on June 9, 2021, under the RTI Act, 2005, through the online portal www.rtionline.gov.in. In addition to the DPR, he sought a list of the beneficiaries under the PM Awas Yojna from a few villages around his block, Surasyar. The online portal is unfortunately only meant for Union government offices. In spite of being directly controlled by the Ministry of Home Affairs, J&K administration offices have no facility to receive RTI applications electronically. Even during the COVID-19 lockdown in 2020,the people of J&K had to travel to government offices and post offices to submit their RTI applications. I have urged the government several times to create an e-RTI facility, but that has not been done so far in spite of the fact that 3.5 lakh files in the J&K civil secretariat were digitised under the government’s e-Office project.
Mushtaq’s RTI application was transferred to the Ministry of Rural Development (MoRD) from the PMO within 24 hrs. The MoRD transferred the RTI application to the National Rural Infrastructure Development Agency (NRIDA) within a week or so. On June 30, 2021, the NRIDA office in New Delhi directed the chief engineer of the PMGSY in Kashmir to provide the information to Mushtaq. On July 1, 2021, the chief engineer of the PMGSY in Kashmir directed the executive engineer of the PMGSY Budgam to provide the information to Mushtaq. More than 30 days after the letter was dispatched from the chief engineer’s office, Mushtaq has yet to get the information from the executive engineer.
On July 6, the executive engineer wrote a letter to Mushtaq, asking him to pay RTI fees. But Mushtaq is not entitled to pay these fees since he is officially below the poverty line. Later, the executive engineer asked Mushtaq to go to his office. But why should Mushtaq go to him?
The PMGSY’s executive engineer in Budgam is not the only officer to deny information to citizens. There are dozens of similar cases in J&K. And when callous officers fail on all levels, they then spread the notion that they are being blackmailed by RTI applicants or journalists.
Acknowledging the LG
Lieutenant Governor Manoj Sinha has made it a point to be accessible to people. He has taken many initiatives to address public grievances. Some months ago, he sanctioned the sum of Rs 23 lakhs for each gram panchayat in J&K for local developmental needs under the Back to Village programme. He launched a health scheme under which all the residents of the union territory will be given health insurance under the Ayushman Bharat Pradhan Mantri Jan Arogya Yojana and already more than 22 lakh ‘golden cards’ have been issued under this scheme, providing an annual health insurance cover of up to Rs 5 lakhs. This has helped many J&K residents and the people appreciate it.
But J&K needs drastic reforms when it comes to addressing issues of governance and political instability and the LG cannot do this alone. He will need the Government of India to show seriousness about making institutions of transparency and probity operational in J&K.
A ray of hope was generated when Prime Minister Modi called a meeting in New Delhi on June 24 with 14 prominent political leaders from Jammu & Kashmir. It was assumed that the Modi government was serious about restoring democracy and democratic institutions in J&K. But only days after Modi talked about removing both Dilli ki Doori (distance from Delhi) and Dil ki doori (distance from the heart) from the relationship between the Union government and the people of Jammu & Kashmir, Sikh leader Manjinder Singh Sirsa and a few BJP leaders castigated Kashmiri Muslims for what they called “the forcible conversion” of Sikhs in Kashmir to Islam. This became an issue that made the headlines on news channels, newspapers and social media for many days.
For two years, J&K has been under the direct rule of New Delhi. Why didn’t the country’s intelligence agencies ever report the ‘forcible conversions’ of Sikhs to Islam? They couldn’t report it because no such thing has ever happened.
Given this situation, it seems that the meeting between Modi and the 14 J&K leaders on June 24 in New Delhi had been thrust upon the Government of India for reasons that had nothing to do with the relationship between the people of the UT and the Centre. If the meeting had genuinely been called to mend this relationship, there would have been some positive outcomes. But even National Conference leader Farooq Abdullah said recently that there have been no follow-up results on the ground since the meeting.
A government cannot claim to provide good governance unless it is democratic. Only a democratically elected government can be made accountable, transparent, participatory and responsive. To create an effective system of governance, the government must ensure that the voices of the most vulnerable and disadvantaged communities of the country are heard, especially during decision-making processes. Unfortunately this is not happening at all.
A villager from a remote district of Kupwara, Kishtwar or even Kargil has to go to the Central Information Commission to file an appeal against a local executive engineer, junior engineer or tehsildar denying him information under the RTI Act. A woman in J&K has to seek the intervention of the National Commission for Women in New Delhi for justice because the J&K State Women’s Commission was closed down. A few months ago, the J&K State Pollution Control Board was converted into the J&K Pollution Control Committee under the direct control of the Central Pollution Control Board. But although there are about 14 members in this committee, not a single one is from the Kashmir valley. Why?
I could write a series of articles on this subject, citing dozens of examples to make it clear how the institutions of J&K have been disempowered or made defunct. But will it help us, Mr Modi?
Srinagar-based activist, columnist and independent researcher Raja Muzaffar Bhat is an Acumen fellow. He can be reached at [email protected].