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.

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.

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.

Politicians vs the ordinary Kashmiris

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

“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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