RTI Activists Cry Foul as Maharashtra Govt Fails To Appoint Information Commissioners as per Bombay HC Order
The deadline of the first week of February 2024 for filling the vacancies of four state information commissioners (SIC) in Maharashtra as directed by the Bombay High Court has been flouted with none of these appointments having realised; propelling a group of RTI activists, who had filed a public interest litigation (PIL), to dash off a letter to the chief minister, crying contempt of court.
 
You have to just visit the Maharashtra SIC website to understand the number of additional charges burdened on various commissioners including the chief information commissioner. Strangely and curiously, Samir Sahai has an additional charge of state chief information commissioner (SCIC); additional charge as SIC for BrihanMumbai Municipal Corporation; additional charge as SIC, Aurangabad as well as additional charge as SIC, Pune. Four roles rolled into one! 
 
Rahul Pandey, besides being appointed as the Nagpur SIC, also has additional charge of SIC, Amravati. Bhupendra Gurav, who is the SIC of Nashik, has been given an additional charge as SIC, Konkan. Needless to say, the appointment of information commissioners for all seven divisions is paramount.
 
The Bombay High Court (HC), expressing confidence and optimism based on the public prosecutor’s submission, had stated, “We trust and anticipate that the posts will be filled up in the first week of February.”
 
The lack of information commissioners has led to high pendency of second appeals and complaints, the reason why members of the Pune-based RTI Katta Online, steered by its founder Vijay Kumbhar and including former central information commissioner Shailesh Gandhi and others, had filed the PIL in 2020. 
 
In a letter sent by the RTI Katta Online members last week to chief minister Eknath Shinde, Mr Kumbhar writes, “The prolonged duration of disposal of these second appeals has significant repercussions on the effective functioning of the information commission. This delay adversely impacts the right to information for citizens, causing undue hardship and frustration. The objective of this legal recourse is to address and rectify the protracted timeline, ensuring a prompter and efficient resolution of second appeals under the Right to Information Act (RTI).”
 
Moreover, the Bombay HC had also directed that a copy of this order should be presented before the SCIC. He is required to provide specific time limits for the prompt resolution of appeals and grievances, with appropriate measures taken for their implementation. During the hearing, the SIC’s counsel adhered to this directive, committing to update the court on the actions taken to fulfill these obligations.
 
However, says Mr Kumbhar, “The information commission currently faces a void, as the government has yet to appoint individuals to the posts of information commissioner. This raises concerns about the commission's ability to handle second appeals and address complaints promptly. Unfortunately, there is a lack of information available on the government's plans or actions in this regard.”
 
Threatening to serve a contempt of court notice against the Maharashtra government, Mr Kumbhar informs that “Details regarding the implementation of the high court order will be presented by the information commission during a hearing scheduled for 6 March 2024. However, it is noteworthy that, despite the completion of the first week of February, there is a lack of information on any measures taken by the state government regarding the appointment of chief information commissioners and information commissioners within the information commission.”
 
Mr Kumbhar writes in his letter to CM Shinde that “The entire responsibility for this situation rests squarely on the government. In light of this, the government is now obligated to notify the information commission promptly, emphasising the urgent need to fill all vacant positions of information commissioners. Failure to do so may result in the government being accused of contempt of court. It is essential to note that we will pursue legal action depending on your response.”
 
It may be also recalled that the Supreme Court had directed that, considering the large number of pending cases in the Maharashtra SIC, it should function at full strength of 11 commissioners (chief and ten information commissioners). The waiting period in Maharashtra ranges from one year to three years.
 
(Vinita Deshmukh is consulting editor of Moneylife. She is also the 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".)
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