By Venkatesh Nayak*
Readers will remember my despatch from September this year, describing my efforts to find out details about the sale and the efficacy of anti-riot weapons- particularly pellet guns which have caused severe injuries to hundreds of youth in various parts of Jammu and Kashmir. I had sought information under the Right to Information Act, 2005 (RTI Act) about the quantum and price of sale of pellet guns and cartridges as well reports of any studies conducted about the efficacy of such weapons and ammunition on human beings. The RTI application originally sent to the Ordnance Factory Board Kolkata (OFB), landed up with the Khadki Ordnance Factory (OFK).
Rejecting the RTI application, the Central Public Information Officer (CPIO), OFK, had invoked the ground of “defence interest of the State” under Section 8(1)(a) and also claimed that the information was in the nature of commercial confidence, trade secret and/or intellectual property and disclosure would adversely affect the competitive position of a third party. So I filed a first appeal against this order with the First Appellate Authority (FAA), OFK.
Now the FAA, OFK has, in his order, clearly stated that:
a) they do not hold reports of any studies regarding the efficacy of anti-riot weapons such as pellet cartridges; and
b) they do not manufacture anti-riot weapons such as pellet guns but only the ammunition used with it.
In response to the FAA’s direction to disclose specifications of the pellet cartridges, the CPIO has claimed that disclosure of the sale price and the quantum of sale of pellet cartridges is not in the public interest. The CPIO merely printed out the webpages from the OFB’s website regarding the specifications of the pellet cartridges and sent them to me after stamping them with a seal saying “Document issued under the RTI Act”.
What is problematic with the FAA’s order?
The FAA, OFK’s order is problematic in many ways:
1) if the Khadki Ordnance Factory (OFK) is not manufacturing the anti-riot weapon called pellet guns, where are law enforcement agencies, particularly the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) in J&K, buying these pellet guns from?;
2) if, as the manufacturing entity, OFK does not have any study reports regarding the efficacy and expected impact of pellets on human beings, how are they authorised to manufacture such ammunition and under whose orders? If there is no written record about how such ammunition will impact on the intended targets, how can any standardisation of ammunition be achieved? Readers will remember that OFK is a public sector enterprise which sells arms and ammunition not only to the defence forces and law enforcement agencies but also to civilians in the form of weapons for hunting, sporting and self-defence; Such a body is claiming that they do not have studies which show how such anti-riot ammunition will impact on human beings. This is indeed a very strange admission; and
3) The FAA did not bother to give any ruling on my arguments that the sale and pricing of anti-riot weapons cannot be rejected under the RTI Act under either Section 8(1)(a) or Section 8(1)(d).
What is problematic with the CPIO’s response after the FAA’s order?
1) While dealing with my RTI application initially, the CPIO had invoked 2 exemptions (listed above) to deny data regarding the pricing and sale of the anti-riot weapons. Realising that the claim cannot be justified, he has now argued that such disclosure will not be in the public interest. As pointed out above, the FAA did not give any ruling on this issue at all, which he should have. Instead, the CPIO is now raising a ground which is not even permitted under the RTI Act for rejecting an RTI application. According to Section 7(1) of the RTI Act, a request for information may be rejected only for reasons contained in the list of exemptions given in Sections 8 and 9. Nothing in those sections authorises a public authority to reject a request for information by holding that its disclosure not in the public interest.
If I had asked information about the manner of deployment of the anti-riot weapons or their distribution across the forces that are authorised to wield such weapons, that would not have been in the public interest to disclose. Even then it would still have to be linked to the exemptions related to protecting the country’s security or ensuring efficient operations of law enforcement agencies to reject the request.
2) The printout of the webpages that the CPIO has sent contain specifications for the 12-bore pellet cartridge that contain rubber pellets. According to several media reports officers engaged with the situation in J&K have commented that they use 9-bore cartridges. Several media reports indicate the use of metal pellets on protesters in J&K. So the information supplied by the CPIO does not match with the information emerging from the ground in J&K. So are the law enforcement agencies in J&K, especially the CRPF, sourcing the 9-bore pellet cartridges also from some source other than the Khadki Ordnance Factory? The information disclosed under RTI does not clear up this mystery either.
Terror financing seems to be alive despite demonetisation/remonetisation drive
The security forces are reported to have told the Jammu and Kashmir High Court that 3,000 pellet bearing cartridges and 8,650 tear gas cannisters have been used to disperse the protesters between July-August. More instances of the use of these “less lethal weapons” have been reported since then. According to recent media reports, the death toll has crossed 90. Ambulances carrying the injured also have borne the brunt of the violence. Hundreds of security force personnel have also sustained sever injuries.
Initially after the demonetisation and remonetisation drive some senior members of the establishment in Delhi proudly declared that this move had silenced the protesters who could no longer be “paid” in the old currency and that the financing of terror had been plugged. However, recently, the armed forces are reported to have recovered some new currency notes from amongst the belongings of “terrorists” who reportedly shot dead during operations. This indicates, while the old currency notes have been rendered useless, the channels of fund flow are alive and kicking with the new currency notes doing the job. This is a major cause for concern. The demonetisation drive seems to have treated only the symptom and not the disease of “terror financing” itself.
MHA Committee report on riot control methods remains a secret
Soon after the media reported instances of numerous youngsters being injured severely by pellet guns, resulting in extensive eye damage, many of whom were innocent bystanders, the Government of India announced the formation of a committee to study existing and alternative methods of crowd control. The 7-member committee is said to have submitted its report to the Government. This report has not been officially placed in the public domain. There is an urgent need to make the report public. A similar report prepared in 2010 was made public by the Delhi Police after I filed an RTI application. There is no reason why the 2016 report should not be made public, especially, when organisations like OFK are manufacturing ammunition for riot control without knowledge of what their impact is on the human body.
This is an issue of immense public interest. I hope readers will also start seeking such information from the Central and the State Governments as well as the law enforcement agencies that are operating in J&K.
*Programme Coordinator, Access to Information Programme, Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, New Delhi