The Supreme Court (SC) has directed the Centre to publish names, criteria and other details of search committee’s work so far for appointments to the Central Information Commission, under the Right to Information (RTI) Act.
The case pertained to the inordinate delay in filling up the vacancies of crucial posts of Central Information Commissioners (CICs) and Information Commissioners (ICs), The SC order is a big boost for activists, who have campaigned tirelessly for transparency in selection of information commissioners.
The SC directive follows an affidavit submitted by the central government in court today. The Government had earlier committed to decide on vacancies even before a public interest litigation (PIL) for appointment of Commissioners was filed. It told the SC today that it had received 65 applications for the post of the Chief Central Information Commissioner and 280 applications for the four posts of Information Commissioners. The affidavit states that the government has shortlisted names for the post of CIC. However, after the latest SC directive, the government will have to publish these names on its website, before selects the chief information commissioner.
As for the eight other States that were also asked to file an affidavit, the Telangana government has said that it was busy with elections so the SC has given it two more weeks to file its affidavit. The petitioners bought it to the notice of the court that there were 10,000 second appeals pending with this State Commission. The Odisha government’s affidavit states that a selection committee has been formed to fill up four vacancies for ICs.
It may be recalled that a writ petition was filed by activists Anjali Bharadwaj, Amrita Johri and Commodore Lokesh Batra (retd). The reason for this petition was that “under the Right to Information (RTI) Act, the Central Information Commission (CIC) and State Information Commissions (SIC) have been created as statutory bodies to decide appeals and complaints against public authorities, for non-compliance with the RTI law. The proper functioning of these institutions is essential for effective implementation of the RTI Act. The RTI law provides that the CIC must consist of a Chief Information Commissioner and ten information commissioners.”
In an earlier hearing on 27 July 2018, the SC had directed the central government to file an affidavit stating how many posts it proposed to fill, based on the advertisement issued, the time schedule for filling the posts, why appointments were not made subsequent to a 2016 advertisement and measures to ensure transparency in the process of appointment – all this was highlighted in the PIL. In addition, eight state governments, who are respondents in the case, were also directed to file affidavits enumerating the steps they are taking for filling up vacancies, the time frame within which these will be filled and the procedure of appointment.
Incidentally, Chief Information Commissioner Radha Krishna Mathur, and three Central Information Commissioners – Prof M Sridhar Acharyulu, Yashovardhan Azad and A Bhattacharyya, retired in the last week of November 2018. That makes for eight vacancies in the Commission.
Besides the legal intervention sought, former Central Information Commissioner, Prof Acharyulu too kept up the pressure on government by writing a letter to the President of India, Ram Nath Kovind, last week regarding the inordinate delay in appointing information commissioners.
Prof Acharyulu in his letter stated: “…the Government of India should have completed process of appointing the Chief Information Commissioner before the retirement of Shri Radha Krishna Mathur, to be ready to take over the administration of the Commission without any gap, because the RTI Act has not envisaged any vacancy in that high position at any point of the time. The Commission has experienced absence of administration for several months as the Government did not appoint Chief Information Commissioner, three years ago, after retirement of the then Chief. Unfortunately now also that position is left vacant since 22nd November 2018. Similarly leaving seven positions of CICs also will lead to increase in the pendency of second appeals/complaints. The delay in information amounts to denial of information and delay in information justice also means its denial.”
During the hearing on the 3rd December, the petitioners had pointed out that at present there were vacancies in the Central Information Commission, including that of the Chief and the backlog of appeals/complaints had risen to more than 26,000. They also pointed out that the advertisement issued by the central government for the posts of information commissioners and the chief information commissioner did not specify the salary and tenure, even though these are specifically defined in the RTI Act & therefore, the advertisements were not in keeping with the RTI law. All previous advertisements for the posts specified the salary and tenure. Upon being questioned about the anomaly in the advertisements, the counsel for the central government stated that the government was intending to amend the RTI Act.
Prof Acharyulu, former central information commissioner has appealed to President of India for appointment of eminent persons from fields other than Administration to the CIC. His letter says:
“I would like produce the text of Section 12(5) of RTI Act 2005 for ready reference, at this juncture:
The Chief Information Commissioner and Information Commissioners shall be persons of eminence in public life with wide knowledge and experience in law, science and technology, social service, management, journalism, mass media or administration and governance.”
“In this context, as a person who worked as Central Information Commissioner for five years till recently, I request your Excellency to consider following suggestions:
1. As the Chief Information Commissioner in all these 13 years was selected from the field of Administration only, at least, this time an eminent person from the field other than Administration may be selected; and if for any reason, the Government decides to select a retired bureaucrat once again, it should ensure that he had credentials of integrity, commitment towards transparency and has never supported or promoted any kind of secrecy in administration. The people have a right to know this kind of background of the Chief and other Commissioners. The Government should also commit itself to appoint next Chief Information Commission from other than bureaucrats.
2. As mandated by section 12(5) of the RTI Act, the Government of India has a statutory duty to select at least one person of eminence each in public life with wide knowledge and experience from the fields of (1) law, (2) science, (3) technology, (4) social service, (5) management, (6) journalism, and (7) mass media. As the Government has already appointed three eminent persons with experience in administration, who are working now, the Committee, as a principle, should not consider the persons from this field for this time.
3. Whenever the Selection Committee convenes, from now onwards, it shall select one eminent person of experience each from these fields necessarily for making the Central Information Commission representative of multiple fields of public activity and truly democratic. With experts from various fields, there will be no scope for bureaucratic majority or domination in its administration besides accommodating different view-points. If the Government selects more number of former bureaucrats for these posts, it will in breach of letter and spirit of transparency law and more particularly that of Section 12(5) of RTI Act, which may not stand the scrutiny by the Judiciary.
4. The Selection Committee should also ensure that the new Commissioners appointed shall have the complete independence with regard to the term, status and salary as provided by the RTI Act. Their term, status and salary shall not be ‘as prescribed’ by the Central Government’ as contemplated by the present Government in the proposed Amendment to RTI Act.
5. The Government shall ensure that it will not interfere in the functioning of Central Information Commission and also to insulate the office of Chief Information Commissioner or individual commissioner from direct or indirect pressures or interferences from any of its offices such as PMO or the Ministry of DoPT.
6. The Government shall not introduce the RTI (Amendment) Bill, 2018 and shelve it permanently, in the interest of transparency of administration and good governance.
7. Hereafter, the Government shall fill every vacancy promptly so that a new Chief/Commissioner takes over the charge from the retiring Commissioner without any gap