Noted RTI activists Shailesh Gandhi and Aruna Roy file Intervention Petition in the Supreme Court
In a landmark move to fight for citizens’ right and to preserve the sanctity of the Right to Information Act, noted activists Shailesh Gandhi and Aruna Roy have submitted their intervention petition to the Supreme Court, seeking to quash the controversial provisions for selecting Chief Information Commissioners
Shailesh Gandhi, former Central Information Commissioner and Ms Aruna Roy, member of the National Advisory Council which helped draft the RTI Act, have filed an intervention petition (in the matter of Union of India Vs Namit Sharma) seeking to review the regressive measures—that Chief Information Commissioners should have judicial background—which would otherwise harm the Right to Information (RTI) Act, make it redundant and subvert democracy in India. The intervention petition stated, “the direction that the Commission should work in benches where one of the Commissioners is a judicial member would create several problems that have the potential of defeating the objective of the Act itself”.
Ever since the pronouncement of the Supreme Court judgment for selection of candidates for the post of Chief Information Commissioner was announced, there had been a lot of hue and cry from not only the activists and RTI community but even some notable judges were appalled. The recent move to mandate candidates to have judicial background in order to become Chief Information Commissioner had citizens fearing of “judicial overreach”, which will eventually harm freedom of speech and democracy.
Earlier, the Supreme Court entertained petitioner Namit Sharma’s stand against the Government of India for the need of Chief Information Commissioners to have judicial background, which would require the RTI Act be amended. The Supreme Court, in its controversial judgment, stated that, “Information Commissions at respective levels shall henceforth work in benches of two members each. One of them being a ‘judicial member’, while the other an ‘expert member’.” However, Mr Gandhi and Ms Roy argued that the RTI is not a court but a tribunal merely to seek ‘information’ and not ‘justice’. In their intervention petition, they stated, “The Information Commissions are not ‘judicial tribunals’ since they are not administering justice, but are only providing access to information to make administration transparent. The work being done by the Information Commissioners (ICs) do not require them to be judicially and legally trained, but only expects that they be persons of intelligence, common sense and integrity.”
Mr Gandhi had opined on Moneylife on this very issue and they can be accessed through the articles mentioned below:
The Supreme Court decision has also shocked the current Chief Information Commissioner, Satyanand Mishra, who recently said at the Commission’s annual convention on 12th October, “The approach of the Commissions in all these years has been to act like an umpire standing right on the field along with the players and not sitting on a pedestal and pronounce oracles. Openness of approach, informality in style and simplicity of systems has characterized the functioning of the Commissions. No robes, no lawyers, no liveried attendants because what the citizens seek does not go with so much of serious formality. Excessive judicialisation of the Information Commissions will rob these institutions of their flexibility. The society must decide if this is the right path.”
Furthermore, chief justice of Delhi High Court Justice AP Shah had written a critique of the judgement calling it ‘regressive’ and has hoped that the judgment will be reviewed. He had penned an article in The Times of India titled “Don’t Kill the RTI”, which said, “Namit Sharma is a regressive decision that only hampers the working of the information commissions by making it more legalistic and complex. It creates more problems while solving none.”
If the judgment is implemented it will make things a lot worse for the ordinary citizens, especially those who have already filed their second appeals. Due to the two-bench nature of the proposed structure, it will only prolong second appeals and the time taken to dispose them off will only skyrocket. This will discourage citizens seeking information from filing the RTI appeals when they know that the RTI will be subverted to suit the interest of the few who do not want information out in short time, or at all.
Rather than appoint Chief Information Commissioners based on judicial experience and background and stifling the disposal rate, Mr Gandhi and Ms Roy argued for a more pragmatic and common sense approach to increase transparency in selection process, as well as advocating for monitoring the performance levels of Chief Information Commissioners. Some of the steps he has suggested are below, which is open to debate, and requests Moneylife readers to pen down their thoughts.
• The Information Commissions should set a target for disposals; say 5,000, per Commissioner per year. An attempt should be made to increase this target number.
• Every six months they should review their actual performance per Commissioner and forecast the expected receipts and disposals for the next two years, factoring the retirements. This forecast would show the requirements for new Commissioners to be appointed.
• The government should advertise its intention to appoint a certain number of Information Commissioners depending on the need, at least four months in advance. Eminent people could apply or be nominated by others.
• A search committee, perhaps, consisting of two members of Parliament, Chief Information Commissioner, one Vice Chancellor, one Supreme Court judge and two RTI activists could be formed to shortlist a panel which could be three times the number of Commissioners to be selected. These could be announced with the minutes of the meeting at which the short listing was done.
• A public interview should be held to give citizens and groups the opportunity to hear the views and commitment to work of the candidates. After this the search committee could give its recommendation. Based on these inputs, the final decision to select the Commissioners could be taken by the Committee as per the Act consisting of the prime minister, leader of opposition and one minister.
In the recent RTI workshop held at Moneylife Foundation for advanced users, Mr Gandhi said that “Freedom of expression without the Right to Information is meaningless”, citing the importance of information in a well-functioning democracy.
Here are some extra links in which you can read some of the pieces on Supreme Court’s controversial decision: