//'In J&K, misplaced concerns delay RTI'

'In J&K, misplaced concerns delay RTI'

Neelesh Misra, Hindustan Times

New Delhi, January 14, 2007

Misplaced concerns about security in Kashmir are delaying the enforcement of the Right to Information Act in the state, says the head of the watchdog agency.

The landmark act, described by many analysts as one of the most important laws enacted in India since independence, currently does not apply to J&K because of its special constitutional status. It will have to be adopted by the state assembly before citizens can begin to seek the wide-ranging information they want from the government.

A law like the RTI is crucial to Kashmir, where much is veiled in secrecy, and many actions are defended citing national security needs. Wajahat Habibullah, who has served for years in Kashmir as an administrator, said transparency would make Kashmiris feel more secure.

In an interview with the Hindustan Times, he said he had drafted a right to information law for J&K; it was introduced in the state assembly and referred to a select committee. "But they are not coming up with anything," said Habibullah. "I do not think it is just because of bureaucratic delays, it is something more. There are misplaced concerns for security."

Similar security concerns earlier prevented the use of mobile phones in Kashmir. Security agencies blocked their entry for years even as their use boomed elsewhere in India. Now, intelligence agencies use the phones to intercept militants' conversations.

Habibullah said he would personally handle appeals in cases of human-rights violations and corruption in spy agencies and those security forces mostly exempted under the law.

At least 4,000 people have been reported as missing in Kashmir during the 17-year-old insurgency, many of whom disappeared after being taken for questioning by security forces, according to estimates from government officials.

Allegations of other human-rights abuses are also frequently made by citizens and civil-rights groups in that state, the Northeast and other parts of the country where paramilitary and other forces are deployed.

But most citizens seem unaware that although the information law does not apply to J&K, applications can still be placed before representatives of central security forces and intelligence agencies.

K Srinivasan, deputy inspector-general, Border Security Force – which is deployed in the Kashmir Valley – and Prabhakar Tripathi, spokesman for the Central Reserve Police Force, which has bunkers and pickets across Srinagar, told HT that no application had been made in Kashmir under the information law. Both organisations are in the RTI exemptions list.

Habibullah said he had received no appeal related to human-rights abuses or corruption among intelligence and other exempted security agencies.

Parvez Imroz, a Kashmiri human-rights activist with the Coalition of Civil Society, said: "Unlike other states where people and civil-society groups are asserting rights, there is no faith here in institutions here – although that is also not correct."