After the abrogation of Jammu and Kashmir’s semi-autonomous status and statehood on 5 August 2019, eight state commissions were dissolved by the Government of India. A year later, there is little sign that the government intends to re-establish these crucial institutions in the Union Territory with a population of more than twelve million.
The state commissions had come into being through individual Acts—similar to the central laws governing these commissions—enacted by the erstwhile state legislature in J-K. These Acts were repealed under the Jammu and Kashmir Reorganisation Act, 2019 even when, rights activists point out, they could have been retained as 166 other state laws have been.
The dissolved commissions include the Human Rights Commission (SHRC), the State Information Commission, the State Women’s Commission, the State Accountability Commission, the State Vigilance Commission, the Consumer Commission, the Commission for Persons with Disability, and the Electricity Regulatory Commission.
Nearly a year after the dissolution of these commissions and the transfer of their jurisdictions to the respective central commissions or administrative departments, activists in J-K say that accountability has taken a backseat as the process has become more cumbersome for the general public.
Dr Raja Muzaffar Bhat, a prominent Right to Information (RTI) activist said that following the dissolution of the commissions, specifically the State Information and Human Rights Commissions, seeking accountability from government officials had become an even more difficult process.
Dr Bhat said that a myth that J-K had a weak RTI law was perpetuated by “politicians, so-called think tanks, and television debaters” when the reality was that as a state J-K had more stringent rules than the central law. “Yes, the central act was not applicable but we had our own RTI law passed in 2009,” he pointed out. “It did not have the flaws that the central law has.”
The J-K law had, for instance, specified a time period for the commission to process second-appeals cases within 60 days or provide, in writing, the reasons for delay beyond 120 days, said Dr Bhat. He added that it was because of this that J-K’s “pending cases were among the lowest” in the country.
However, under the central RTI Act of 2005, Dr Bhat said, there is no provision for a separate commission in union territories and J-K cases will now be taken up in the Central Information Commission. “A resident of border areas who has to make an appeal against the local Tehsildar or Block Development Officer, now has to file a second appeal in the central commission [in New Delhi,” he said. “By clubbing us with [central] RTI Act of 2005, we have been disempowered because we don’t have an independent information commission.”
Dr Bhat said that by the virtue of this distance, and the increased financial costs associated with this, the bureaucracy has become more opaque. “This has created a notion in government offices, among bureaucrats that RTI has ended and that there is no commission so they are behaving in a different way,” he said. “How will a [poor] villager go to Delhi? We don’t have accountability anymore.”
“We have been disempowered in every which way,” he said. “Corruption is everywhere today. Information on expenditure on COVID-19 is not available voluntarily. Under section 4 of central RTI act 2005 as well as JK, they have to make voluntary disclosure on websites. They are not doing it.”
Similarly, the J-K State Consumer Disputes Redressal Commission—headed by a retired or serving judge—and its district forums under the oversight of a Double Bench of the High Court was also dissolved. The commission’s cases were transferred to the administrative department of Food, Civil Supplies and Consumer Affairs.
According to Sami Yaqoob, an advocate who specialises in consumer cases, there were pros and cons to the dissolution and the better-staffed central commission’s oversight but the mere fact that the cases would now be heard in New Delhi had increased the financial costs of initiating a complaint by “more than a 100 times”.
With a population of more than 12 million, according to the decade old 2011 census, not only has the hardships and financial costs increased for the general public seeking accountability from the governance system but also ensure the processes will be lengthy owing to the huge load of cases.
For many the dissolution of local institutions had left them helpless and their woes compounded with the outbreak of COVID-19. Despite the dissolution of the State Women’s Commission, women victim-survivors and lawyers continue to reach out to Vasundhra Pathak Masoodi, the commission’s head at the time of its dissolution, seeking help.
“During the lockdown I was flooded with distress calls/complaints from different corners of J&K,” Ms. Masoodi said. “It’s really heart wrenching that I can’t reply to them back that the commission has been closed and those who are already distressed, being victims of violence lose hope to get justice. [I] try to provide respite whichever way possible in my individual capacity.”
An order for closing the commission reached her office on 23 October directing the commission to “hand over the files, documents, and everything with regards to the working to the administrative department, in our case it was the Social Welfare Department,” said Ms. Masoodi. The commission, she said, was dissolved at a time when “some of the cases were just pending disposal, only on the next date of hearing we were to pass judgements or an order and in some cases we were just nearing the closure.”
Many of these commissions had remained side-lined and ignored by successive state governments for years, including the State Women’s Commission. Now, nearly a year after the Reorganisation Act was unilaterally passed by the parliament to undo what the Bharatiya Janata Party had called injustices to the erstwhile state, there seems to be little hopes for the public to redress its grievances.
The Reorganisation Act, however, had certain which could have ensured the continuation of the commission because of the applicability of national laws from 31 October—the day J-K’s special status under Article 370 ceased to exist, said Ms. Masoodi, a lawyer by profession.
Simultaneously on 31 October, the President of India signed the Removal of Difficulties order that gave continuity to all the statutory bodies in J-K, pointed out Ms. Masoodi. “Meaning thereby it superseded the order of closure by the [UT administration],” she said. “Because the order was signed by the President of India. It goes without saying that it has an overriding effect on it [closure order].”
Section 17 of the order states that: “Any authority constituted under any law in the existing State of Jammu and Kashmir immediately in force before the appointed day shall be deemed to have been constituted under the corresponding provisions of the Central laws applicable to the Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir and the Union Territory of Ladakh, until a new authority is constituted under the law applicable to the Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir or the Union Territory of Ladakh, as the case may be, and any proceedings initiated or action taken by such authority, shall for all purposes be deemed to be valid and operative.”
Following the order, Ms Masoodi said that “hopes were amplified that the commission will be back soon and people will not have to suffer” but still, the J-K administration has to follow certain procedures to reconstitute the Commission.
However, for unspecified reasons the administration in J-K decided not to go ahead with re-establishing the dissolved commissions. Further, in May 2020, the administration also wound up the State Vigilance Commission.
Ms. Masoodi said that other union territories had made their own enactments to establish local commissions. “You cannot ensure the applicability of the National Commission for Women Act of India if the local level dispensation is not there,” she said, pointing out that the union territory of Puducherry, the only other union territory in India with an elected legislature, and Lakshadweep with a population of 50,000 had their own Women’s Commissions. “It is not because the NCW Act is applicable in JK that we do not need a body, it is a poor interpretation of it [the law]. Rather, the NCW act can only be made applicable in J-K if there is a local mechanism like the one we had”
Recently, Ms. Masoodi said that she had approached the district administration in Srinagar after coming across news reports on the plight of a bed ridden girl abandoned in a Srinagar hospital. “I was flabbergasted with the response from certain quarters including some NGOs that I expected help from,” she said, adding that officials of the administration had later responded. “Once you are in chair you have the authority to give and get your orders implemented. Once you are not there, people [officials] don’t feel responsible enough to revert even if it is for a mere social cause. This is precisely why the gulf has been created between the public and the administration.”
“We don’t need to invoke Newton’s law to understand what is going on in Kashmir,” said Ms. Masoodi. “It is a gulf between the system and the people which is the basic bone of contention and has blown out haywire.”
The story originally appeared in our 3 – 9 August 2020 print edition.