After the drama starting with foot-dragging in appointing information commissioners, followed by the Right to Information (RTI) activists petitioning to the Supreme Court, which, in turn; ordered the Central and various state governments to appoint them in a transparent manner and within the time frame, there’s another twist to the meandering tale.
The Maharashtra government now has thought it fit to first take it in writing from the applicants to the information commissioners’ post, to agree, in black and white, if they are willing to be appointed as information commissioners as per the amended rules of the RTI Act 2019!
Remember, the amended rules that are already in force, have broken the spine of the RTI Act by altering various aspects of the appointment of information commissioners. As per this amendment, which the BJP government got passed through both the houses of the Parliament without even a discussion, the tenure of the chief information commissioners and information commissioners of the Centre or the state governments, has been reduced to three years. Besides, the salaries would be as per the whims and fancies of the Centre/state governments. Also, information commissioners who were on par with the chief election commissioners/ Supreme Court judges would find their autonomous powers and the binding to be appointed for five years, crippled. The new appointees would have to abide by these rules if they want to be posted as information commissioners.
A circular dated 20 February 2020 (which will be soon put up as an advertisement), by the general administration department (GAD) of the Maharashtra government, states that:
Due to the change in salary, allowances, term of office and other terms and conditions of service of the state information commissioners, all applicants who have applied for the post of the state information commissioners in the Maharashtra State Commission as per the advertisement dated 7 June 2019, must send by post as well as through email a letter in Marathi and English in the enclosed format, regarding the application made and their willingness to be appointed to the post of state information commissioners, with the words ``willingness for the post of State Information Commissioner’’ superscribed on the envelope, to Secretary (O&M), General Administration Department, 1st floor, Mantralaya, Mumbai and to sic-application gov.in, within 15 days from the date of the publication of the circular.
Now the government of Maharashtra has asked all the applicants to furnish the consent letter in the following format as per the amended rules:
- According to the advertisement dated 7 June 2019, I have applied for the post of State Information Commissioner in the Maharashtra State Information Commission.
- Right to Information (Term of Office, Salaries, Allowances and Other Terms and Conditions of Service of the Chief Information Commissioner, Information Commissioners in the Central Information Commission, State Chief Information Commissioner and State Information Commissioners in the State Information Commission) Rules, 2019. Notification on this subject has been published by the Central government on 24 October 2019. As per the notification dated 24.10.2019, the Central government has modified the salary, allowances, term of office and other terms and conditions of service of the State Chief Information Commissioner and State Information Commissioners in the State Information Commission.
- I have taken note of these changes and I agree to maintain the application made and will impress for the post of State Information Commissioner.
It may be noted that the general administration department (GAD) had invited applications from candidates for the three posts in Nashik, Pune and Nagpur benches of the State Information Commission (SIC) in June 2019. Accordingly, some have applied for the post of SIC. The state government had also appointed a search committee to shortlist the names of the candidates to be sent to the appointment committee.
States RTI activist Vijay Kumbhar, “The advertisement in this regard is yet to be published in the newspapers. If the government publishes this advertisement in next 3-4 days it will receive consent letters by 15th March.
"Then the search committee will follow objective criteria for shortlisting of applicants and prepare a panel of such short-listed candidates, along with the criteria applied. Supposing it takes a month or so, till 15th April. And after that, the same shall be notified on the website for the appropriate time. Say about a month or so i.e. 15th May. Thereafter, the short-listed list would be placed for consideration by the committee led by the chief minister; which in turn, will make its recommendations to the Governor. If all goes well, the state information commissioners could be appointed by June end in Maharashtra.’’
It may be recalled that the Supreme Court had ordered the Centre and eight states to make appointments to information commissions in a timely and transparent manner. The eight state governments were: Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, Odisha, Telangana, West Bengal, Karnataka, Kerala and Gujarat. 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).
According to Venkatesh Nayak, with the amendments, the Central government has the discretionary power to relax of any the rules with regard to any class or category of persons in future. Rule 21 gives absolute power to the Central government to decide on any other allowances or service conditions not specifically covered by the 2019 Rules and its decision will be binding. Rule 23 makes the Central government the final arbiter with regard to the interpretation of these Rules. Thus, the autonomy of the information commission from governmental interference as was protected by the RTI Act passed by Parliament in 2005, has been consigned to the dustbin and the stranglehold of the Central government has been established on all 29 Information Commissions across the country.
(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”