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Kashmir's David vs Goliath battle against corruption

Tackling corruption could remove one irritant Kashmiris have with their New Delhi-backed government. But, it could also alienate locals who benefit from some of the largesse.

By Staff writer / July 18, 2011

Khag, India-controlled Kashmir

A rural Kashmiri villager named Basheer Malik has officially requested the government to reveal how much it has spent on helicopter trips for Chief Minister Omar Abdullah.

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Mr. Malik and Mr. Abdullah run in very different circles. Earlier this month, Abdullah was spotted at the buffet of the five-star LaLit Hotel in Srinagar. Malik, meanwhile, was observed cutting up a freshly-slaughtered sheep and cooking it over a campfire as a wilderness guide.

Malik sees his request as simple and fair: “It’s our tax money, we need to know about these things.”

The slingshot in this David vs. Goliath encounter is the Right to Information (RTI) Act. The newly implemented RTI law is spawning a rural, grassroots movement to push for transparency and better governance. Kashmir has become one of India’s most corrupt states as New Delhi works to hang on to the independence-minded region through a policy that includes winning hearts and minds with money.

The Right to Information Act movement consciously avoids the larger question of Kashmir’s sovereignty. But it may yet impact the decades-old dispute. Tackling corruption could remove one irritant Kashmiris have with their New Delhi-backed government. On the other hand, it could also pose challenges to New Delhi’s local allies and the perks – legal and illegal – they garner by working for the state.

“What we are doing, it’s about the governance issues,” says Muzaffar Bhat, a leading RTI organizer. “The government of India is not sincere about curbing corruption here … because they think, ‘If we target ministers here of different parties, who is going to keep Kashmir with India?’

The RTI act allows anyone to ask specific questions of government officials and expect a response within 30 days.

Helicopter transparency

On June 7, Malik asked how much has been spent on fuel and pilots for Abdullah’s helicopter rides since 2009. He has yet to receive a response from Abdullah’s public information officer, meaning the case will be sent to the state’s chief information commissioner to apply pressure and fines on the officer.

Numerous efforts were made to get comment from Abdullah. His office canceled a sit-down interview for scheduling reasons. Close to press time he sent an e-mail declining to answer questions sent via e-mail more than a week ago pertaining to this RTI.

There are, of course, reasonable official uses for helicopters. India’s chief ministers, who are like US governors, rely on helicopters to get around quickly in a country with poor infrastructure. This is especially true in mountainous Kashmir where many constituents and development projects would be otherwise inaccessible.

But chopper expenses are a populist issue even in countries like the US – where the governor of New Jersey has recently been questioned about their use. And in Abdullah’s case, they feed into a common perception of him as a young leader close to New Delhi and accessible on Twitter but removed from the sufferings of ordinary Kashmiris.


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