After the disastrous floods and landslides in Jammu and Kashmir in September 2014, who was eligible for relief and compensation from the government? How could people apply for it, and what were the details of the relief packages? And who actually obtained these benefits?  

The people of Bandipora district decided to find out and the district collector recently acceded to their demands, posting the information on the notice board and on the official website.

But is it as simple as it sounds? Not quite. Since the flood relief phase of October-December, people had asked several times for information on the surveys, the criteria for selection of beneficiaries and reasons for discrimination in compensation. Some sustained severe damages and got Rs 3000 in compensation while people with pucca houses which suffered relatively little damage got as much as Rs 73,000.  

What was the reason for this?  It was only after volunteers of the Jammu & Kashmir RTI movement organised the flood-affected people and gave them an orientation in the use of the Right to Information act, that this came to light. Citizens got together and on 24 February, filed 200 applications for information.  On the very next day, the information came into the public domain.

Ironically, however, this should have been evident to the beneficiaries in the first place. The Collector was only doing his job since according to Section 4(1) b of the J&K RTI Act 2009, this information falls under the "proactive disclosure” category. As it happens, however, the disclosure turned out to be another accomplishment of the RTI movement in the state.

This RTI success story has a background of village-to-village grassroots level work by the people of Jammu and Kashmir over the past year, building on similar efforts throughout the country, particularly in Gujarat, the base of the Mahiti Adhikar Gujarat Pahel (MAGP). Initiated in 2002 and associated with the National Campaign for People's Right to Information (NCPRI), MAGP is a programme of Janpath, a network of voluntary organisations in Gujarat working towards strengthening people's voices in natural resource management, organising nomadic and primitive communities, and supporting human rights defenders. ​  

With the support of Janpath and the Association for India’s Development, MAGP outfitted a bus to serve as an RTI-on-Wheels training and resource centre. Starting in 2007, the bus first travelled throughout Gujarat, eventually extending the journey to neighbouring districts and states and finally flagged off an RTI Bharat Yatra throughout India in 2014.

Reaching urban and rural areas and remote villages, the RTI van serves as a site for volunteers to talk to people about their right to information and their right to a government that works for them.

The RTI Bus makes a stop in Jammu & Kashmir. Pic courtesy: J&K RTI team

In June 2014, the RTI-on-Wheels bus yatra reached Jammu and Kashmir and inspired the young and old alike to internalise the message of participatory democracy and accountable governance. But it wasn’t easy to break entrenched beliefs.

Sadhna Behn, a trainer on the bus says, “While some people knew about the RTI, they still felt that as simple villagers, it would be difficult to challenge the powerful people if the latter indeed chose to withhold information.” Such attitudes were driven by experience, such as that of Nisar Ahmad from Thathari.  

People in Ahmad’s village had not been paid for their work under the MGNREGA programme. Suspecting corruption, he asked the block development officer for copies of the muster rolls and expenses and was charged Rs. 5000 for the photocopy charges. However, four months later, he was still waiting for the Public Information Officer at the BDO office to send him the information.

It was around this time that he heard about the RTI Bharat Yatra reaching the Chenab region. Travelling 23 kilometres to Doda, Ahmad attended the RTI users’ meet on 17 June. Sadhana Behn guided him in filing a complaint with the state information commission under section 15 of the J&K RTI Act (2009).

The Commission ordered the PIO to furnish the information and refund the amount of Rs 5000 that Ahmad had paid. Cross-checking the government records with the villagers at the grassroots, he found that there were indeed fake names and other irregularities. The people then collected evidence to file complaints with the government and recover their lost wages.

In June and July, the RTI-on-Wheels Bharat Yatra visited Jammu, Doda, Kishtawar, Anantnag, Srinagar, Kupwara, Pulwama, Shopian ​and Badgam.  Pankti Jog, coordinator of the MAGP explains how they approached people during the yatra:  “In public markets, bus stands, schools and colleges, and even outside masjids just after Namaz, the team held outreach and awareness programs about the Right to Information Act and how people could use it to solve their problems.”

“In large public meetings, we screened RTI films and stories.  With youth groups, we conducted short RTI drafting exercises. Those who approached us with their issues got a chance to write an application with our guidance in the “office area” of the RTI-on-Wheels bus.  We also trained local RTI activists and volunteers on techniques and strategies of using the RTI Act effectively,” she adds.

Harinesh Pandya, an RTI trainer on the bus points out that “the intellectual class and academicians were not very well-connected with grassroots movements and we tried to help bridge that gap in our meetings.”

As a follow-up to this campaign, the J&K RTI team also started an activity centre in the flood-affected areas of Nowgam and Bandipora.  As their efforts in the flood and landslide-affected districts throughout the monsoon and winter of 2014 shows, neither rain nor snow, nor the gloom of night, keeps the RTI bus from rolling and delivering information into the hands of people who can use it to make the government work for them. The first success to come out of the Bandipora initiative is the release of the flood relief records.

Information is just the beginning. Now, armed with names and figures, the people of Bandipora will be invited to a public hearing to cross-check the lists, ensure that the benefits have actually reached the people and bring any discrepancies to the notice of the government for further action.

Dr. Shaikh Ghulam Rasool (in blue) leading a group of RTI users towards the District Collector's office to file RTI en masse. Pic: J&K RTI team

Asked about the impact of the RTI-on-Wheels Bharat yatra, the J&K RTI movement activist Dr. Shaikh Ghulam Rasool said that because the bus visited far flung villages, it was able to expand their grassroots reach. “After the yatra visited Jammu and Kashmir, we are receiving a greater volume of phone calls and most are on grassroots issues such as ration card, housing and other government schemes, pensions and identity certificates.”

Trained and supported by Janpath and its team of RTI activists, the local organisation JK Rural Voice has also been steadfastly working in villages and districts throughout the state and teaching people how to obtain information on government policies, processes, approvals and expenditures in order to solve their problems at the individual and social level. Pandya and the RTI-on-Wheels team are now planning to return to Jammu and Kashmir at the end of March.