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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.

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Politicians vs the ordinary Kashmiris

For Malik, it was partly about seeing if he could close that gap.

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“I wanted to see if I am empowered enough” to get a response, says Malik, one of scores of rural RTI activists. “I was tired with going after small guys.”

RTI has scored some important victories over rural officials, many of whom are used to operating with much less scrutiny than Abdullah.

Residents of Branwar grew upset that only a poorly trained assistant ever showed up at the village’s medical clinic. A tailor named Ghulam Ahmad Lone tried talking to higher officials, but did not get a response, he says, “because I was an agrarian type of man.”

That’s until Mr. Lone filed an RTI asking for the clinic’s duty roster and medical supplies received from the government.

“Now the doctor is coming regularly. They are prescribing [government] medicine free of cost,” says Lone. “Before this, they used to send us to some medical shop.”

The doctor, Lone says, offered him membership on a village health committee. “I am not accepting because I think they are trying to muzzle my voice,” he says.

Government jobs have long been a method of co-opting people here. After Indian security forces killed 117 Kashmiri protesters last summer, police jobs have been offered to some of the protesting youth.

Other RTI activists have requested the names of people who received free saplings, greenhouses, and other agricultural help from the government. Such lists have included the names of people who never received the help – including some of the activists themselves. Villagers then demand to know from officials: Who pocketed the money?

“We [have] had a culture of silence,” says Sheikh Ghulam Rasool, another RTI trainer. “Now when they file RTI then this culture of silence automatically leaves and this new sense comes that I can see and they will respond.”

The request enforcer

Malik’s chopper request may wind up in front of chief information commissioner G. R. Sufi, whose job is to resolve disputes over RTI applications. Before he opened the office in late February, the RTI law in Kashmir had no enforcer; now he has ruled on some 125 complaints and moved the bureaucracy to respond.

“There is no excuse not to respond to the information seekers,” says Mr. Sufi, commenting in general on cases where no answer is given.

However, he has yet to dock any bureaucrat’s salary for failure to answer and he admits he is “walking a tightrope now” on the more controversial requests. That’s because the act calls for three commissioners but the government has dragged its feet on the two other appointments – meaning his one-man decisions could be challenged in court.

Added work

A bureaucrat who was not authorized to speak to the press expressed concern about handling the increasing number of requests. He, like most Indian bureaucrats, sits at a desk surrounded by piles of folders tied with twine.

“There is a nuisance element to this,” the bureaucrat says. “Even if the request is frivolous you have to look into it. And there is no mechanism to punish habitual RTI requests.”

Both Sufi and the bureaucrat agree that ultimately the government’s documents must be digitized then dumped to public servers so RTI requests become do-it-yourself. The RTI law calls for this changeover, meaning the next challenge for activists may become sifting through too much information.

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