Is it a case of no lessons learnt or deliberate attempt to scuttle the Right to Information (RTI) Act? Once again, with the retirement of chief central information commissioner (CCIC) Bimal Julka on the 27th August, the post of the chief information commissioner (CIC) in Delhi has fallen vacant and once again neither the directives of the department of personnel and training (DoPT) in starting the process of selecting the next CIC, three months before retirement, nor the Supreme Court’s order in 2019 to make appointments transparent and within the time schedule, is being heeded.
Besides Mr Julka’s vacancy, which has just rendered the central information commission headless, four posts of information commissioners (ICs) are also vacant in the CIC. Anjali Bharadwaj, member of the Satark Nagrik Sangathan, which is campaigning over this issue and even sought judicial intervention in the highest judicial body of the country, states, “Currently more than 35,000 appeals and complaints are pending in the commission, resulting in citizens having to wait for months, even years for their cases to be disposed, thereby frustrating peoples’ right to know.’’
In fact, since 2014, when the Modi government took over, there has been dilly-dallying over prompt appointment of ICs, leading to several vacancies in the CIC in New Delhi as well in various state information commissions. The basic mandatory clauses of releasing advertisement to call for applications to these posts, three months before the retirement of any CCIC, CIC or IC and to ensure that the search and selection committees zero in on the candidate, have been flouted. (Read: Since May 2014, CICs or ICs Have Been Appointed Only When Directed by the Courts)
Rues Ms Bharadwaj, “Since May 2014, not a single commissioner of the CIC has been appointed without citizens having to approach courts. The failure of the government to make timely appointments of commissioners is a flagrant violation of the directions of the Supreme Court. In its February 2019 judgment, the apex court had categorically stated that if the CIC does not have a Chief Information Commissioner or the required strength of commissioners, it adversely affects the functioning of the RTI Act and “may even amount to negating the very purpose for which this Act came into force.”
To ensure timely appointments, the court had directed that the process of selection should commence prior to the vacancy arising. Further, the judgement notes, “The petitioners are right in their submissions that there have been undue delays in filling up of these vacancies. We expect that the vacancies shall be filled up, in future, well in time.” (Judgment in WPC 436 of 2018- Anjali Bhardwaj & Ors Vs Union of India & Ors.).
The Central government has also faltered in the transparency aspect in the appointment of CICs. In its December 2019 order as well as in its earlier order of February 2019, the Supreme Court directed the government to ensure transparency in the process of appointment by disclosing the names of the members of the search committee and complying with the earlier directions regarding timely and transparent appointments to the CIC. It had made it mandatory to:
• disclosure of the agenda and minutes of the search and selection committee meetings
• criteria adopted by the search committee for shortlisting candidates
• the advertisement issued for the vacancies
• the list of applicants, notification of appointments, file notings and correspondence related to appointments.
However, only skeletal information has been uploaded in the public domain.
Says Ms Bharadwaj, “The repeated failure to appoint the chief and other commissioners of the CIC in a timely manner appears to be a deliberate attempt by the government to undermine the RTI Act & frustrate peoples' ability to seek information to hold the government accountable.’’
Writes research scholar and programme coordinator of the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI), Venkatesh Nayak, in The Leaflet, “While NDA’s promise of minimum government is laudable, when institutions like the information commissions are weakened then the governance will also get minimised and turn the Constitution’s vision of rule of law into a distant dream.”
Mr Nayak feels that as per the 2019 Supreme Court guidelines, the government must complete forthwith the process of filling up the vacancies in the CIC which was initiated last month. The search committee headed by the cabinet secretary and the selection committee headed by the prime minister must identify well-qualified candidates to recommend to the President of India for an appointment without any further delay.
(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”