Signature campaigns, protests in the Parliament, polite letters to the PM, court petitions – RTI activists have tried it all to appeal to the government to fill up the vital Chief Central Information Commissioner’s post. The Modi government ignores it all. Why? Experts speak out
We are about to complete one full decade of the Right to Information Act (RTI), which was passed by the Parliament on 15 June 2005, and implemented on 12 October 2005. However, it is for the first time, that the crucial post of the Chief Central Information Commissioner (CCIC) is lying vacant since nine months, with the Narendra Modi government, which otherwise boasts of efficiency and transparency, refusing to fill up this post, under some pretext or the other.
To understand the importance of this post, it would suffice to say that it is akin to having a cabinet without the Prime Minister. It also means that crucial and important public authorities like the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO), Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG), Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), Central Vigilance Commission (CVC), Supreme Court, High Court amongst several others, which are directly under the Chief Central Information Commissioner, are unanswerable for now. Also, the pendency of second appeals has piled up by over 100%.
Is the government deliberately trying to cripple the RTI Act that for the first time since Independence, has empowered citizens to demand transparency and exposed corruption and financial irregularities? RTI has led to public shame of some stalwart politicians and resulted in the defeat of many in the recent Lok Sabha and State Assembly elections, much to the discomfort of the political fraternity. So, one cannot help wonder whether stifling the RTI Act is the best option for this community.
However, unlike earlier campaigns like the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) wanting to throw file notings out of the RTI ambit, which had led to vocal and vociferous protests by RTI activists and citizens across the country, the case of the non-appointment of CIC has not attracted a strong protest from the masses. It is time that each one of us raised our voice against this deliberate negligence by the Modi government to weaken this citizen-friendly Act, as a thousand voices would compel the government.
Moneylife spoke to leading RTI experts and crusaders of the country to understand the danger and repercussions of non-appointment of the CIC. Read on…
Shailesh Gandhi (Former Central Information Commissioner and RTI Activist):
In the absence of a CCIC, the Commission has not done reallocation of work. Consequently, the portfolios of the Chief Commissioner are left completely unserved. Similarly no multiple member benches are being formed since conventionally the Chief Commissioner constitutes these. However, most organisations everywhere operate on an acting head or work on unanimity in such situations. Unfortunately, the Commissioners have not adopted this simple method to ensure smooth working. They have waited for the Delhi High Court to tell them this.
It is also strange that the government has not found the time to appoint a CIC despite the lapse of nearly nine months. Even in the Parliament, no proper explanation was given for this serious lapse. It appears the Government is not interested in RTI. Most established Institutions are unhappy with RTI.
The former Prime Minister, - harried by the uncovering of various scams by RTI,-said at the Central Information Commission’s convention in October 2012, “There are concerns about frivolous and vexatious use of the Act in demanding information the disclosure of which cannot possibly serve any public purpose.”
The present Prime Minister has taken a pre-emptive action by not appointing a Chief Information Commissioner at all to render it dysfunctional.
The bureaucracy is also hardening its stand and in most cases has realized that the Commissioners are not really committed to transparency. This coupled with the long wait at the Commissions and the reluctance of the Commissions in imposing penalties is slowly making it difficult to get sensitive information which could aid citizens to expose structural shortcomings or corruption.
When the power equation changes between those with power and the ordinary citizen, resistance is to be expected. Everyone in power generally feels transparency is good for others, whereas they should be left to work effectively. It is implied that transparency is a hindrance to good governance.
Anjali Bharadwaj (Delhi-based RTI Activist and member, NCPRI):
Non-appointment of CCIC is a deliberate, benign neglect
We started getting alarmed very soon after the position of the CIC fell vacant because this is one place, which is helping people so much access to information. Non-appointment of the Chief CIC, is really going to weaken the institution of the CIC. The government, on one pretext or the other, has not made the appointment since 22 August 2014 and it is going to be nine months now. For the government that says it is extremely efficient and works promptly, one wonders what prevents it from making such a crucial appointment.
I feel this is a deliberate benign neglect by the Modi government in order to stifle the RTI Act. So far, we have all been used to frontal attacks on RTI and time and again, the civil society comes together and fights except that this time because it is a case of non-appointment, it has taken people so long to realise how the government is stealthily trying to weaken the Act.
When we filed RTI applications, they kept giving some reason or the other of why there has been no appointment. The first time, when we filed the RTI application, they said, they have given an open advertisement and the last date is November. Now, if the retirement of CCIC Rajiv Mathur was not an emergency retirement, as he did not resign and so the government knew his date of retirement, why did the advertisement process, if there had been one, took place three months after he retired? Till now the tradition has been that the senior most information commissioner is made the chief. Now they have said that they want a different system.
In our subsequent RTI applications, we were told that the PM has desired that a fresh selection be made even for a chief’s post and a search committee be set up. The committee comprised all bureaucrats so we asked the minutes of its meetings. We got a reply stating that no minutes of the meetings were maintained and hence they do not even know who attended. Therefore, there is utter lack of transparency in this process. Even after that, the last stage for applying was November. Even till date they have not been able to shortlist people. Last month the matter went to HC and now the Department of Personnel and Training (DoPT) has said that it will require three months more and the Court has said it would monitor its work.
The real crux of the issue is that the CIC has a special position under the RTI Act. So, all powers of superintendence, of management and of direction are with the Chief CIC. Therefore, all administrative and financial powers are also with him including allocation of work. Crucial public authorities for the past nine months have had no adjudicators and no commissioners to look into the violation of the RTI law. Thus, without changing a word of RTI law, today the PMO and other such crucial offices are outside the ambit of the RTI.
We have held protests in this Parliamentary Session and from Jantar Mantar, we have met the DoPT minister who has given us vague answers. We had also undertaken signature campaigns. It is time for more and more people to voice this unpardonable delay in appointing CCIC, thereby killing the RTI Act
Vijay Kumbhar (Pune-based RTI activist):
Government is breaking faith of citizens
The government may not be breaking any rule in the RTI Act by not appointing a CCIC but it certainly is breaking faith of the citizens. Appointment of CCIC or IC’s is no doubt a serious issue, but the bitter truth is that no political party in India likes transparency or good governance. It is only because of pressure from international funding agencies (for their own interest or otherwise) to make good governance and transparency, mandatory for governments from developing countries that the latter, in this case India, has been forced to bring in citizen friendly laws, with enough flaws to dilute the original intent. However, when it comes to implementation, political parties are in solidarity with Babus, to keep them as weak as possible.
There is reason to believe in this theory. The three essential elements of good governance are transparency, accountability and responsiveness of the administration. In 1997, at the all-states chief ministers’ conference the then Prime minister realised that (probably due to above mentioned pressure) as the country completes 50 years of independence and as the people are assailed by growing doubts about the accountability, effectiveness and moral standards of administration, the central and state governments should move together to justify the trust of faith of the people in the government by taking up the implementation of the action plan.
The conference also resolved that the central and state governments would work together to concretize the Action Plan dealing with the following themes
I. Accountable and citizen-friendly Government
II. Transparency and Right to Information and
III. Improving the performance and integrity of the public service.
Citizens’ Charter, Redressal of Public Grievances, Peoples Participation, Decentralisation and Devolution of Powers were part of all these measures.
Thereafter central and state governments introduced so many so-called pro-people legislations. Hence, even 18 years after the chief ministers’ resolution, things have not changed. If you remember the journey of the RTI Act from Freedom of Information Act to Right to Information Act, you will realise that politicians, in solidarity with babus, initially tried to bring a toothless RTI act but had to bow before stalwart activists who compelled it to bring in a strong Act. The same was the fate of public services guaranty act, whistle blowers act, decentralization of powers, eradication of corruption, Lokpal , Lokayukt and all such laws.
The only way to overcome this situation is citizens should keep raising their voice.
Commodore Lokesh Batra (retd), (Delhi-based RTI activist and one of the petitioners for appointment of ICs and CICs):
Lack of Chief Information Commissioner adversely affects functioning of CIC
The reasons why it is important to have the post of the CCIC have been described in our petition to the High Court. They are:
A. That the Right to Information Act provides a legal mechanism to enforce and implement the citizen’s right to information guaranteed under Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution of India. The delay in disposal of the cases by the CIC frustrates the very purpose of the RTI Act.
B. That the position of the Chief Information Commissioner is very vital in term of section 12(4) of the RTI Act, 2005 and lack of it can very adversely effect the functioning of the CIC.
C. That the RTI Act mandates a time-bound delivery of information to the citizens. Long delays defeat the letter and spirit of this legislation.
D. That despite repeated letters of the Chief Information Commissioners to the President and lodging grievance with the Govt. of India, for filling up the vacancies of Information Commissioners and appointment of the Chief Information Commissioner, the Union of India has failed to appoint the Information Commissioners and Chief Information Commissioner in the CIC. Such an action is arbitrary.
E. That for more than 100 authorities/departments, there is a vacuum of jurisdiction at CIC, which includes important organizations/institutions like CVC, CBI, UPSC, CAG, President Secretariat, PMO, Hon’ble Supreme Court and High Courts.
F. That Union of India is statutorily bound to make appointments of the Information Commissioners and its has failed to do its statutory duty
G. That the indefinite time taken in disposal of the Appeal/Complaints by the CIC, the fundamental right, i.e., right to information of the citizens to access information within the stipulated period is violated.
H. That the Supreme Court in the case of Centre for Public Interest Litigation & Anr. Vs. Union of India & Anr. (2011 (4) SCC 1), has laid down certain guidelines for appointment to watchdog institution like CVC and the same must be followed in selection of Chief Information Commissioner and Information Commissioners.
Last fortnight, the High Court ordered:
a. Direct the Union of India to forthwith and urgently prepare a shortlist of candidates for the position of Chief Information Commissioner and 3 Information Commissioners in transparent manner on the basis of rational criteria from diverse backgrounds as envisaged under section 12 of the RTI Act and immediately place the said shortlist before the high-powered selection committee, for final selection and appointment, to be concluded in a time bound manner.
Chronology after CCIC Rajiv Mathur retired on 22 August 2014
23 Aug 2014 - Chief IC post fell vacant after Chief IC Rajiv Mathur retired on 22 August 2014. Since then post of Chief IC is lying vacant.
1 Sept 2014 - The 'Special Leave Petition (SLP) of Union of India disposed off as infructuous in view of the statement of ASG.
11 Sept 2014 - Former Chief Information Commissioners along with other eminent persons wrote a letter to President of India urging him to appoint the Chief Information Commissioner and highlighting the huge pendency in the CIC.
24 Oct 2014 - Government of India called for the application for the post of Chief IC in CIC.
16 Jan 2015 - First meeting of Search Committee held in the Chairmanship of Cabinet Secretary.
06 Apr 2015 - No appointment at CIC has been made. At present there are 4 vacancies at CIC, including that of the Chief Information Commissioner.
(Vinita Deshmukh is consulting editor of
Moneylife, an RTI activist and convener of the Pune Metro Jagruti Abhiyaan. She is the recipient of prestigious awards like the Statesman Award for Rural Reporting which she won twice in 1998 and 2005 and the Chameli Devi Jain award for outstanding media person for her investigation series on Dow Chemicals. She co-authored the book “To The Last Bullet - The Inspiring Story of A Braveheart - Ashok Kamte” with Vinita Kamte and is the author of “The Mighty Fall”