In a stern order that demands definitive action, the Bombay High Court has asked the Maharashtra government to file developments in the process for the appointment of three state information commissioners by 8 January 2021.
The order is a sequel to two public interest litigations (PILs) filed in November by the activists of the Online RTI Katta, which is emerging as a formidable citizen pressure group. The whopping 58,000 odd pending second appeals and complaints (as mentioned in the official website of the state information commission) spurred the activists to campaign rigorously and seek legal intervention.
Earlier, in October, the Katta members sent a legal notice to Sumit Mullick, the state chief information commissioner (SCIC) seeking a roadmap and timeline of how the commission would clear off the backlog but received no response. The PILs prayed for disposal of cases within 45 days (citing several HC orders regarding the time frame of disposal. The RTI Act 2005 has no such specific provisions of the deadline).
In its response, the state chief information commissioner too had communicated to the HC his concern about the pending second appeals due to the lethargy of the state government in filling up the posts. In the earlier hearing the state information commission has submitted in the HC that there are three vacancies of commissioners and vacancies of other staff in the office of the SIC that is disabling the commission from disposing of the matters pending before it. HC then has asked petitioners to implead the state of Maharashtra through the department of general administration as respondent No.2 in PIL.
In response to the PILs, the state government in its affidavit dated 28th November has stated that the process for appointment of the three state information commissioners is in progress in right earnest. Hence, the hearing of the PIL petition is adjourned till 8 January 2021, to enable the state to report developments in respect of such process.
In its affidavit to the High Court on 28th November, the state government has given a timeline of its efforts to fill up the three vacancies. However, it allegedly shows that perhaps candidates who had not applied for the posts have been brought in from the back door. It is as follows:
• 7 June 2019: Advertisement for appointment to three posts of IC
• 24 October 2019: Central government amends RTI Act
• 20 February 2020: Advertisement for consent from candidates applied as per advertisement dated 7 June 2020
• 5 August 2020: Meeting of the search committee, the committee again seeks consent from candidates who didn’t respond to the 20 February 2020 advertisement for consent.
• 7 August 2020 emails sent to the remaining candidates for consent. No advertisement.
So, as per the timeline, the state government began the process of filling IC vacancies in June 2019 but in October 2019, the Central government amended the RTI Act and the rules for appointment of CICs and ICs. Since the rules changed drastically as regards the status and the salaries of the ICs, the state government sought consent from the candidates who had applied for the post of ICs in Maharashtra. So far, so good.
However strangely, when the search committee met on 5th August, it again sought consent from candidates who did not respond to the 20th February advertisement. This is as per the affidavit filed by the state government. This is indeed a grey area, as it is beyond the scope of the search committee to seek consent of those who did not respond or those who did not apply. The responsibility of the search committee is limited to making the selection from the candidates’ list that it has received, say activists.
Also, they wonder why an advertisement was not put up for consent of the candidates who did not respond, as is the norm, but sent an official email to them. No one knows who they are. In fact, even the names of candidates who have applied officially have been kept under wraps. This is in violation of the SC order of 2019 which had ordered transparency in appointments.
Hence, activists say it arouses suspicion of back door entries by politicians: a trend which is becoming common even during the appointment of central information commissioners.
It may be recalled that despite clear-cut directives by the Supreme Court on 15 February 2019 to the Centre and eight states to make appointments to information commissions in a timely manner and to make transparent the names of the members of the search and selection committees, the agenda and minutes of committee meetings, the advertisement issued for vacancies, particulars of applicants, names of shortlisted candidates, file notings and correspondence related to appointments by uploading them in the public domain, there has hardly been any compliance.
As for Maharashtra, the Supreme Court had directed that considering the large number of pending cases in the Maharashtra state information commission, it should function at full strength of 11 commissioners (chief and 10 information commissioners). The waiting period in Maharashtra ranges from one year to three years. There are also three High Court decisions requiring time bound disposal by commissions, which are being completely disregarded.
(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”.)