RTI NGO’s J&K yatra found how RTI helped discontinue decades old lease of army firing range, which killed many locals

rti2The Right to Information (RTI) on Wheels, a Mahiti Adhikar Gujarat Pahel (MAGP) project, made an intensive tour of Jammu & Kashmir (J&K) for a fortnight starting on July 15. This was the first leg of its RTI Bharat Yatra. An MAGP report on experiences of J&K:

The RTI on Wheels reached Jammu on July 15.  The first meeting was Balwinder Singh of Sangharsh RTI Movement-J&K, who has used innovatively to expose governance issues. He advocates with elected representatives, as well with administration to lead to systemic change, and he collaborates with media to get support for his advocacy issues. On July 16, there was a meeting with State Information Commissioner SK Sharma along with Balwinder Singh. The key issues discussed were:

  • Information sought by citizen majorly falls into proactive disclosure category. The public authorities have failed to make this information available on their websites and notice boards. This information is not being given in stipulated time by officials concerned, and citizens have to approach the commission quite frequently. Citizens raise their grievance regarding welfare scheme and programmes through RTI.
  • Presently, RTI is the only effective tool in the hands of common citizen for seeking transparency and accountability. The commission is aware of this fact, and tries to ensure that all information related to the grievance and redressal mechanism is given to applicant.

Sanjeev Parihar, executive committee member of VANI, arranged a meeting with 35 members from civil society organizations. It was coordinated by Ashok Bhatt, secretary, Confederation of NGOs. After briefing on the objective of the MAGP’s RTI Bharat Yatra, the key issues emerged were:

  • Organizations face big issues of poor governance, corruption in the system, and lack of willingness to improve. Yet, very few organizations have made use of RTI extensively as tool of advocacy, empowerment and mobilization. In fact, those who filed RTI applications were immediately contacted to have dialogue and requested not to seek information through RTI.
  • Participants showed strong willingness to promote RTI in their area of intervention and expressed the need for having a facilitation centre where in any citizen/ NGO can seek spot guidance. The confederation offered its office space, and requested the RTI Movement-J&K to join hands by providing technical guidance, training and assistance.
  • Members expressed concern on ignorance about RTI among block and village level officials. Youth shared their experiences wherein answer sheets are still not being provided under RTI, and as per university rules, students need to pay high fees to inspect answer sheets, and they are not allowed to seek a copy.

Upon request, Chief Minister of J&K Omar Abdulla flagged off the RTI Bharat Yatra at at 5:00 pm. During the ceremony at the Jammu Club, those present included the DSP, state officials, members from civil society, RTI users and media persons.

Flag-off by J&K CM

On July 17, at Doda, the RTI Movement-J&K organized RTI users’ meet, which was attended by 70 people. People had several issues with the implementation of the RTI Act. Information was not being given during the stipulated time period in most of the cases, the pendency at state information commission (SIC) level was beyond 120 days, and no time period was given for the commission in the J&K RTI Act, 2009 to clear the backlog. Officials did not take RTI seriously and positively, and most of the time information on options of payment of amount for application fee was not given. The information that should have been given proactively was denied or partially given. However, it was an encouraging environment. People from remote villages had reached Doda for the meeting and shared their success stories.

The next day, at Kishtawar, a group of activists led by Sanjeev Parihar, who is also founder-president of Social Reforms and Charitable Organizations (SRCO), discussed following issues:

1. Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, Indira Awas Yojna and many other programmes meant for social security, economic or social empowerment were being implemented in the worst possible manner. The corruption level was intolerable and people wished to tell the government to cancel these programmes/schemes if it could not curb corruption.

2. The way in which the education programme was being implemented was frustrating. The teachers do not prefer to work in mountainous areas and adverse conditions. Most of such teachers enjoy their holidays in cities/ towns, and the future of thousands of children is at risk. But this issue never gets attention of the government due to the nexus between monitoring authorities, teachers and elected representatives.

3. People expressed their anger and concern towards negligence shown by state and central governments towards issues faced by common citizens. In addition to issues related to conflicts and clashes, common citizens also have their daily issues related to connectivity, electricity, education, health, unemployment. When will government realize this? They asked.

SRCO works with children affected in conflicts. Ashiana Orphanage Boys Hostel is being constructed by the Army, and is run by SRCO at Kishtawar since 2005. Due to holistic approach of the organization, students get opportunities to develop their skills in computer, English speaking, and vocational training.

On June 19, at Anantnag, the RTI Team had an appointment with Chief Information Commissioner G.R. Sufi and Information Commissioner Nazir Ahmad. The RTI officials showed deep concern towards compliance of Section 4 by public authorities. The MAGP shared its experiences of developing ready to use templates for important information from Section 4, which can be disclosed on the wall. Sufi said increasing number of citizens was seeking information related to their pending grievance.

The next meeting was at Chadora, Badgaon district. It was attended by around 40 RTI users. Experiences were shared. Gulzar Ahmed and his friends used RTI to get details of Tosamaidan firing range, its lease details and conditions for extending the lease etc. This information formed the basis for entire Tosamaidan Bachau Movement which took place in June 2014. Finally, the government did not extend the lease of the army firing range.  The meeting was organized by RTI Movement-J&K.

A case of army atrocity

The meeting was followed by an outreach programme at Gurvet village, from where one could oversee beautiful glaciers, and hear roaring sound of the river flowing down with force from the mountains. There were apple gardens all around. People were invited to represent their questions. One old age person and a young boy were passing by. They reached us.

The old man said, “Do you see this child? His father was caught by the army. When the army came to our house, they fired at my wife and daughter-in-law. My son never returned. After a few days, the army people once again came to take me. I asked the officer, ‘Will you spare two minutes?’ I went to the place where sheep and goats were kept, and opened the door to let them free. ‘I do not know whether I am going to return or not. This boy will beg for food when he will feel hungry. But what about my sheep and goats do if they are locked inside?’, I told them. I was released by the army after a month’s time. They gave me three cheques of Rs 5,000 each as compensation. I went to various officers. They asked for Rs 3,000 per cheque as bribe. I decided not to take compensation. Cheques, letters are still lying with me.”

He was advised to file an RTI complaint. “Life has stopped for me after they took away my son. If you are meeting government officials, convey my message. Kashmiris do not want heavens to be built for them. They just want one opportunity to move a step forward in their life”, is all he said.

Women, who were earlier watching the programme from a distance, slowly approached the vehicle and then shared their problem of not getting payment regularly under MGNREGA. They talked in detail about how it becomes difficult for one or two to fight against the corrupt officials.

People have started realizing the strength of RTI. Haneefa, who is deputy sarpanch, is always available for her villagers. Few people had migrated to upper areas (mountains) for grazing and were facing some issue with locals. When Haneefa got this news, she immediately left for the place (Dudhpathri) saying, “It is our responsibility to be there to resolve the issue.” Her husband, who is a teacher, and people call him masterji, is always supporting Haneefa in drafting RTI applications and writing letters to government officials.

Tosamaidan Bachau Andolan 

As we were travelling, the core team of the RTI Movement-J&K shared various incidents where they were threatened or socially pressurized or offered money. “RTI work is like prayer for us”, Bashir told us. One of the stories was about Tosamaidan Bachau Andolan, about which we had learnt earlier.  A magnificent meadow in Budgaon district was given to the army on lease as firing range in 1964.The lease was put up for renewal in 2014.

In the past five decades, 63 people were killed and hundreds disabled in several accidents related to un-exploded shells littered on the meadow’s slopes. Information regarding the lease conditions, renewal, and deaths, was obtained under RTI. Under the leadership of Dr. Shaikh Gulam Rasool, villagers of 16 villages around Tosamaidan got together to start Tosamaidan Bachau Front.

For centuries, Tosamaidan had served as grazing land for the villagers’ livestock. But, since 1964, for six months from May to October every year, the meadow has seen scenes of simulated warfare carried out by the army. During this period, the villages reverberated with the barrage of shelling and deafening explosions, forcing the villagers to stay indoors most of the time. Tosamaidan is the king of meadows. It has incredible scenic beauty.

Slowly, the movement gathered momentum. It gave a call for rally and protests in Srinagar, and Srinagar witnessed one of the biggest peaceful protests of democratic manner of the past three decades. A large number of people joined the rally.  Finally, the government decided not to renew the lease for firing range. The movement has now submitted its plan of developing this area for eco-tourism.

Resistance against land acquisition

Then there was the tale of 253 youths. We were in Singpura in Baramulla district. In a gathering of RTI users, Ahmad Afzal, shared this story. In 2008 there was an agitation against land acquisition for a road development project. The government, in order to suppress the movement, lodged FIR. “Many among us were school-going kids. As many as 253 youths from 10-12 villages of Baramulla even today are being harassed by police. The government registered several cases against them. Every month they need to appear in the court and pay fees to advocates. They also have to appear in the police station. If they go out of town for two days, police inquire at their home”, Afzal said.

“We have been arrested many times in a year, before any important day and occasion in the name of maintaining law and order. When the police visits our house they damage our property, break things, misbehave with ladies at home. We approached the DSP, ministers, different parties. But no one believes us. No one gives us any work. Our families have been ruined. They earn only to pay bond and fees of advocates. We have seen a ray of hope in RTI and we all have come to see you”, he added.

In the Baramulla area, Yaseen Mir, district coordinator of RTI Movement-J&K led the yatra, and at Singpura, there was a youth gathering. Issues were similar (MGNREGA, IAY, and other schemes). Many had used RTI and as reaction to the same, the BDO stopped doing any developmental work in their village. “Your village will not get funds because of you”, he said. The speakers talked about horrific experiences from youth who have been booked under various charges by government since 2008 land row movement in Baramulla. Growing violation of human rights and incidents of atrocities by the police department is a major issue of concern and needs attention/legal help.

Then there were public outreach programmes at Magam, Tangmerg, Babarishi, Beerua, Seil, Branwar, and Suryasa,. There was an interesting hour-long interaction with higher secondary students. Teachers were interested in RTI and they asked RTI Movement-J&K to conduct such sessions for students at regular intervals. It was observed that students, especially girls, were very sharp, and they asked, “Why there is so much of corruption? And what one can do about it?” On June 25, the Divisional Commissioner Gandarbal District organized an interaction with PIO, where  around 30 PIOs from various blocks participated.

On the following day, there was a programme at the College Pulwama, 36 km from Srinagar – an interaction with over 1,000 students. Detailed discussion on RTI, procedure of filing, and screening of videos was done, which was followed by lots of questions from college youths. Issues that came up were related to passport, scholarships, admission procedures, and procedures during appointments, steps taken by government for un-employment issue etc. At Keller market, many of these students joined the RTI on Wheels to seek guidance on how they could use RTI to seek details of local development funds utilized by government in their area.

Forest department’s false case

Then there was a programme at Jampatri, a small village with around 300 households of Gujjar community, denotified tribe. Most of them migrate to hilly areas for grazing during summer and reside in Dok, a makeshift shelter made out of stones, mud and grass. Many youth who had gathered were aware of RTI, some have used it also. One case of harassment by forest department also came up for discussion. Mohammad Shafi and his friends filed a series of RTI with the forest department to know about actions taken by the department in against timber smugglers. The forest department, in reaction to this, filed cases against three youths with the charge that they destroyed the forest department’s nursery. When the incident happened, they were in the village, and the sarpanch could stand witness for their presence in the village.

Next day, the yatra reached Rajauri, which was the last stopover. Here, it was joined by Tazeem, a local journalist and RTI volunteer. At the main bazaar, two major cases came up during this programme. In one case, thje applicant had filed the second appeal and was waiting for six months. There is time line of 120 days for the commission for disposing of the second appeal, He was given guidance to do follow-up of his appeal. In the second case, one middle-aged woman complained for not getting proper information on livelihood promotion programs. She said, “We have to form groups. We already have, but they never include us in the programmes”.

The core team of MAGP which carried out the yatra consisted of Harinesh Pandya, Sadhana, Prabhat Rana, Lakhabhai and Pankti Jog. Those who coordinated the yatra are active volunteers of the RTI Movement-J&K.

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