The Chief Information Commissioner Retired Last Week. Why No Hurry to Fill Up the Post?
The retirement date of Chief Information Commissioner Sudhir Bhargava was crystal clear. He vacated his post on 11 January 2020, leaving behind a burden of 34,500 pending second appeals. Yet, once again, the government is determined to take its own sweet time to appoint a new chief at the Central Information Commission (CIC).
 
Interestingly, this time, the appointment would be in accordance with the new rules following amendments to the Right to Information (RTI) Act in 2019. These amendments have made the tenure of the information commissioners, including the chief information commissioner, uncertain. Further, all terms of service including salaries and allowances of the central and state chief information commissioners (SCICs) and information commissioners (ICs) will be determined by the central government. 
 
This also applies to five posts in CIC that are lying vacant. Paradoxically, the information commissioners currently working in the Commission, would continue to work according to the earlier rules, which assure them a five year term at prescribed salaries, allowances and pension benefits, while the new incumbents would be at the mercy of the government.
 
Thanks to this peculiar situation, RTI activist Subhashchandra Agrawal suggests that, “a system be formulated whereby the senior-most information commissioner may be appointed as the chief information commissioner”. He says, such a system will ensure that the important top post is always occupied and also take care for the peculiar situation having arisen, where the new appointees may be appointed on downgraded terms. 
 
As Mr Agarwal points out, no commissioner would want to take up the post of Chief IC under the new rules if it involves a downgrade to service conditions and retirement benefits. On the other hand, any outside appointee would face the ignominious situation of heading the Information Commissions with service-conditions inferior to those of present ICs. This would be both uncomfortable and embarrassing for all concerned. “In any case, it is always better to appoint a person as chief IC, who has already gained sufficient experience as information commissioner”, says the veteran RTI activist.
 
This is the fourth time that the post of the chief information commissioner has fallen vacant since 2014. In fact, none of the vacancies in the CIC have been filled since May 2014 without activists having to approach the courts. 
 
Elaborating this RTI activist Anjali Bhardwaj says, “Since May 2014, every time the chief information commissioner has retired, there has been a gap (of up to nine months) between retirement of the incumbent and appointment of the new chief and people have had to approach courts to compel the government to fill the vacancy. The post of the chief IC was vacant between August 2014 and April 2015 when Rajiv Mathur retired. The post again fell vacant for one month in December 2015 when Vijay Sharma retired and subsequently again in December 2018 when RK Mathur retired.”
 
In its February 2019 judgment on a public interest litigation (PIL) regarding timely and transparent appointment of information commissioners, the Supreme Court had directed that vacancies in information commissions should be filled without delay by initiating the process of appointment one to two months prior to the date on which the vacancy is occurring to minimize the time lag between the occurrence of a vacancy and filling up of the vacancy. 
 
RTI activist Ms Bharadwaj, who had filed the PIL, says, “The court had also held that ‘in case CIC does not have a chief IC or other commissioners with required strength, it may badly affect the functioning of the Act, which may even amount to negating the very purpose for which this Act came into force.” 
 
In September 2019, a fresh petition was filed to the Supreme Court regarding the failure of the central government and some state governments to fill vacancies in information commissions as per the February 2019 directions of the SC. 
 
On the directions of the Supreme Court even though an advertisement was issued inviting applications for four vacancies in January 2019, these have not been filled till date. 
 
As per the submission of the government to the Supreme Court, 256 applications were received for the four vacancies, but in November 2019, when the search committee met, it decided to re-issue the advertisement against the backdrop of the amendments to the RTI Act in July 2019. 
 
So, another advertisement was released on 12 December 2019. However, the government has not abided to the SC orders to make appointments transparent.
 
Ms Bhardwaj says, “The Supreme Court directed the government to place in the public domain the names of the search committee and complete the process of appointments within three months. In flagrant violation of the February 2019 judgment of the SC, information regarding the number and particulars of applications received, the names of members of the selection committee or the criteria adopted for shortlisting applications has not been placed in the public domain.’’
 
Is keeping vacancies for a long time another strategy of the government to dilute the RTI Act, besides already undermining the independence of the CIC? It seems so.
 
(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”.)
  • Like this story? Get our top stories by email.

    User

    Electoral Bonds: File Notings Reveal Requests to Keep Donor Names Secret
    In a landmark order last week, the Central Information Commissioner (CIC) has asked four public authorities – the Reserve Bank of India (RBI); State Bank of India (SBI); the Election Commission of India (ECI) and; the Department of Economic Affairs (DEA) to provide names of individuals and entities that wanted to hide their identities in the electoral bond scheme. 
     
    The commission, which is the apex body under the Right to Information (RTI) Act, issued a show cause notice to all four asking as to why penalty should not be imposed on their central public information officers (CIPOs) for not providing information that falls in the ambit of their organisation.
     
    The order is part of a two-year battle fought by well-known RTI activists Venkatesh Nayak, who is a research scholar at the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI) and Commodore Lokesh Batra (retd). 
     
    Commodore Batra had procured file notings, which reveal that several requests were made to keep names of donors a secret.
     
    Mr Nayak, who was initially denied information about any such requests having been made, pursued the matter with the help of RTI replies received by Cmde Batra. He sought information on:
     
    • The total number of representation or petitions or communications received by the government till date, from donors regarding the need for maintaining confidentiality of their identity while making donations to political parties;

     

    • A clear photocopy of all representations or petitions or communication as described above;

     

    • A clear photocopy of the Draft Electoral Bond Scheme prepared by your Department for consultation with the Reserve Bank of India and the Election commission of India
     
    As there was no reply for 40 days, Mr Nayak filed first appeal to the Appellate Authority requesting him to “admit this appeal and direct the concerned CPIO to disclose all information” asked for. The first appellate authority (FAA), stated that the information comes under the offices of Department of Financial Services (DFS), the Election Commission and co-ordination section of DEA and ordered transfer of Mr Nayak’s RTI application to these three public authorities.
     
    Mr Nayak’s RTI application was subsequently forwarded to the RTI section of the RBI. All four public authorities claimed that they have no information to furnish.
     
    Mr Nayak then filed a second appeal to the CIC asking it to “invoke its power under Section 18(3) of the RTI Act to make a determination as to which of the four public authorities actually holds or controls the information requested in the original RTI application.
     
    He also asked the CIC to direct the public authorities, which hold the information, to disseminate it. He also asked the CIC to direct all four public authorities to provide rigorous training to their respective CPIOs.
     
    Mr Nayak’s second appeal highlighted how each public authority was eligible to provide the information but was shirking its responsibility. 
     
    He wrote, “The electoral bond scheme has been issued by the DEA. Yet, the CPIO did not  reply for over 30 days and when I filed an appeal with the FAA, my RTI application was transferred to the co-ordination section of the DEA.”  
     
    Mr Nayak also said, “SBI has been named as the designated bank from which any person may purchase an electoral bond of the denomination of one’s choice subject by completing the procedural formalities described in the scheme. It is inconceivable that it does not have information as it must have been consulted prior to the issuance of the gazette notification of 2 January 2018 regarding the electoral bond scheme as it will be rolled out through the largest bank over which it exercises jurisdiction.”
     
    As for the ECI, Mr Nayak points out, “…it is the election management and monitoring body established by the Constitution of India. It keeps a record of the electoral bonds scheme as far as obtaining and publishing details of the donors who make donations to political parties through the purchase of such bonds. Hence, it is inconceivable that it does not have the required information.” 
     
    About the RBI, Mr Nayak’s second appeal said, “it is the sole authority that regulates the affairs of all scheduled banks in India. The Finance Act, 2018, amended Section 31 of the Reserve Bank of India, 1934 to include a reference to electoral bonds. It is inconceivable that the RBI would have been excluded in the process of consultation on the draft electoral bonds scheme. Common sense indicates that such consultation would have required provision of a copy of the draft electoral bonds scheme.’’
     
    On 3 January 2020, central information commissioner Suresh Chandra issued a show cause notice to all four public authorities asking why they should not be penalised and to provide the information sought by Mr Nayak. The deadline to do so is by the end of this month, for all the four public authorities.
     
    (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”.)
  • Like this story? Get our top stories by email.

    User

    COMMENTS

    Meenal Mamdani

    3 weeks ago

    I admire and respect the determination with which Mr. Nayak and Cmdr Batra are pursuing their efforts to unmask the identity of those who have bought electoral bonds. However I suspect that political parties will come up with another mechanism to receive donations without the donor being identified.
    I say this based on the experience with Political Action Committees (PACs) in USA. New laws have closed loopholes to find that PACs use other mechanisms to circumvent the restrictions.
    This time around in USA some Democratic Presidential candidates have publicly announced that they will not accept money from PACs. These candidates have received an outpouring of small donations from the public, donors whose names are in the public domain.
    Will this happen in India too? Yes, may already be happening in small, local contests. But doubt that at the national level it will happen any time soon.

    How to Save RTI and RTI Users
    Recently, Right to Information (RTI) activist Yashwant Shinde had submitted a complaint to the Mumbai’s Commissioner of Police, alleging that he was assaulted by the deputy commissioner of police (DCP) (zone III) inside the cabin when he went for hearing in his first appeal.
     
    In his support, several activists, including former Central Information Commissioner (CIC) Shailesh Gandhi, activist Anil Galgali and Sucheta Dalal, founder trustee of Moneylife Foundation, Dolphy D’souza, Convenor of. Police Reforms Watch presented a memorandum to CP Sanjay Barve, seeking action against the DCP.
     
     
    Following up on this, Moneylife Foundation had organised a meeting with citizens and activists to discuss common misconceptions about the RTI Act and how we can work towards dispelling such rumours. 
     
    The activists present at the session were of differed opinions when it came to tackling abuse of RTI users. Anil Gagali said, "RTI applicants need to understand that rejection of your appplication does not mean you have to follow the same ardous process of going through the first or second appeals. There are other avenues one can approach to get the reply. File a complaint, send a letter, file a RTI on the progress of your complaint. A RTI application is only one of the ways to get your information."
     
    On the same lines, activist Bhaskar Prabhu also suggested RTI users to think outside the box and approach appellate authorities with patience and respect. "They may be rude, they may be abusive, but that does not mean you have to stoop to their level. Proceed with patience. If he refuses the first time, go a second time, then a third time. But change your approach. You have nothing to fear, you are only asking for what is rightfully yours," he explained. 
     
     
    While discussing how this issue can be brought to the attention of the general public and concerned authorities, activist Dolphy D'souza said, "We need to organise a protest. A peacful protest perhaps in front of the police station. We don't need huge numbers, even a mere 50 people would do. We also need this to be further carried forward through the media."
     
    After a vibrant discussion on the safety of RTI users, it was collectively decided to take a call after 10th January by which Mumbai CP Mr Barve has assured some action. 
     
    The session was also important as railway activist Samir Zaveri was felicitated for his efforts in ensuring Sec (13)(a) for the Bombay High Court RTI rules (revised 2009) was deleted. 
     
    Speaking about his achievement, Mr Zaveri said, “The point is to never give up. I had filed a RTI application with the High Court which was rejected incorrectly. I filed first appeal, which was also rejected. But I followed through with a second appeal as well.” 
     
    Sec (13) in Bombay High Court’s RTI rules states the exceptions under which the appellate authority or information officer will can refuse to divulge the information request. Specifically under (a) the rules states “such information which is not in the public domain”.
     
     
    Mr Zaveri followed up his RTI application with letters to the appellate authority presenting his case as to why this particular rule is completely against the basic principles of the RTI Act and was able to convince the relevant authorities to have it deleted.
     
     
    This session also saw the attendance of eminent RTI activists such as Mr Galgali, Bhaskar Prabhu, Mr D’souza, DS Ranga Rao, among others. 
  • Like this story? Get our top stories by email.

    User

    COMMENTS

    govind wattal

    3 weeks ago

    How long will it take for 1st RTI appeal to be heard?

    What to do if there is no movement on hearing the 1st appeal ?

    thank you

    Harish

    3 weeks ago

    Good Work.

    Rakesh Modi

    3 weeks ago

    Can vidhan sabha proceedings be obtained by RTI? As when I applied, 1st they orally said me that the particular proceedings didn't happen only, but when o said that I have video recording of that, then they gave me those but without stamped & attested with a covering letter that this is meant only for personal use. When I asked about this to SIC office, they said, I had to specify in RTI that I wanted attested replies, & if I complained about this to SIC, then it will take them 6 months to reply to me as so much backlogs are there. After so much backlogs also he was busy chatting with female colleague?? This is state of SIC office bang opp Mantralaya!!

    RAEES RAJPOOT

    3 weeks ago

    REALLY GOOD.
    KEEP IT UP

    We are listening!

    Solve the equation and enter in the Captcha field.
      Loading...
    Close

    To continue


    Please
    Sign Up or Sign In
    with

    Email
    Close

    To continue


    Please
    Sign Up or Sign In
    with

    Email

    BUY NOW

    online financial advisory
    Pathbreakers
    Pathbreakers 1 & Pathbreakers 2 contain deep insights, unknown facts and captivating events in the life of 51 top achievers, in their own words.
    online financia advisory
    The Scam
    24 Year Of The Scam: The Perennial Bestseller, reads like a Thriller!
    Moneylife Online Magazine
    Fiercely independent and pro-consumer information on personal finance
    financial magazines online
    Stockletters in 3 Flavours
    Outstanding research that beats mutual funds year after year
    financial magazines in india
    MAS: Complete Online Financial Advisory
    (Includes Moneylife Online Magazine)
    FREE: Your Complete Family Record Book
    Keep all the Personal and Financial Details of You & Your Family. In One Place So That`s Its Easy for Anyone to Find Anytime
    We promise not to share your email id with anyone