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.
On Wednesday, a petition regarding vacancies in the information commissions set up under the Right to Information (RTI) Act was heard by the Supreme Court. It directed all the respondents (Union of India and eight state governments) to file a status report regarding compliance with the judgement given on 15 February 2019.
The eight state governments are: Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, Odisha, Telangana, West Bengal, Karnataka, Kerala and Gujarat. The case is now listed for 16 December 2019. As the directions of the SC were not complied with by the Centre and several states, a petition was filed to the Supreme Court in September 2019.
Just to understand the seriousness of non-compliance, it is pertinent to note, that as of today, that is 6 November, 2019, four posts of information commissioners are vacant and more than 33,000 appeals/complaints are pending at the Central Information Commission (CIC). Anjali Bharadwaj, one of the petitioners, stated that, “The backlog of cases has been rising every month and it takes several months, even years, for matters to be heard. On the directions of the SC, the Central government had issued an advertisement in January 2019, inviting applications for filling the four vacancies. However, the appointments have not been made till date.”
Besides, the Central government has failed to follow the directions of the Court in terms of transparency in the appointment process. To this effect, Ms Bharadwaj states, “The government has not disclosed the composition of the search committee or selection committee, details of applications received in response to the advertisement or the criteria adopted for shortlisting of applications. In fact, the department of personnel & training (DoPT) denied access to this information under the RTI Act, claiming that these were exempt under Section 8(1)(i), which deals with cabinet papers and is not related to such matters.”
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). However, says Ms Bharadwaj, “the state government has failed to make appointments. Currently the SIC is functioning with only five commissioners even as more than 50,000 appeals or complaints were pending as of 30 September 2019.”
As for Andhra Pradesh, its SIC has been functioning without a chief ever since an independent commission was set up for the state in 2017 following the bifurcation of Andhra Pradesh and Telangana.
The bench of Justice SA Bobde, Justice S Abdul Nazeer and Justice Krishna Murari heard the matter in the Supreme Court. Ms Bhardwaj, Commodore (Retd) Lokesh Batra and Amrita Johri have filed the petition. They were represented by senior advocate Prashant Bhushan and advocates Pranav Sachdeva and Rahul Gupta.
Supreme Court’s observations on why information commissions should perform to their maximum strength and do so transparently:
The SC had observed that the objective of the RTI Act is to ensure time-bound access to information and, therefore, commissions should dispose appeals/complaints in a timely manner.
In order to achieve this, the SC held that all information commissions should have adequate number of commissioners based on the workload. It opined that where there are large backlogs of appeals/complaints, the commissions should function at full strength i.e. 1 chief and 10 information commissioners.
The judgment emphasized that if commissions do not function with adequate number of commissioners, it would negate the very purpose of enacting the RTI law.
(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”