The Supreme Court once again directed the Union government as well as the states to file affidavits on the status of appointments of information commissioners under the Right to Information (RTI) Act, as governments have frequently been in defiance of the apex court’s earlier orders, leading to a spiralling of second appeal pendency.
The Maharashtra’s state information commission (SIC) is a glaring example, with a whopping 75,000 pendency while those of the Central Information Commission (CIC) have climbed to 36,711 as on 7 July 2021, as per information on the CIC website, as compared to 33,701 on 16 December 2019.
Also, the CIC website shows that currently the commission is hearing and disposing of appeals/complaints filed before it in mid-2019, which is approximately 24 months after they were filed.
Legal luminary Prashant Bhushan, who represented RTI activists Anjali Bharadwaj, Amrita Johri and Commodore Lokesh Batra (retd) argued that in 2019, despite 355 applicants having applied for the post of six information commissioners as a sequel to an advertisement by the Department of Personnel & Training (DoPT), “persons, who did not apply have been paradropped and appointed. Uday Mahurkar is one such as example who is now information commissioner, although he had never applied for it, thus rendering the entire exercise of inviting applications through advertisement useless. Also, instead of six information commissioners, only three were appointed at that time. This was in gross defiance of SC orders as well as the RTI Act which clearly state that appointments must be transparent and vacancies must be filled up in time.”
In its previous order in December 2019, the SC had directed that all the vacancies be filled within a period of three months. At that time, the Union government had invited applications for four posts of information commissioners (ICs).
Finally, in March 2020, an existing commissioner was appointed to the post of chief information commissioner CIC and only one new IC was appointed, resulting in four vacancies persisting. No reason was given as to why only one vacant post was filled, instead of filling all four of them.
In July 2020, again the central government issued a fresh advertisement for appointment of up to six information commissioners and for the post of chief of CIC, which was scheduled to fall vacant shortly.
However, says Anjali Bharadwaj, “By the end of September 2020, six posts including that of the chief information commissioner had fallen vacant in the CIC. So, we filed an application seeking early listing of the matter.
The application states that, “it appears the government is resorting to issuing fresh advertisements instead of filling all the advertised vacant posts in a bid to cause undue delay in the appointments, thereby frustrating peoples' right to information.”
However, in November 2020, an existing information commissioner was made the chief and three new ICs were appointed instead of six.
The main concerns, besides the selection process and appointments of information commissioners not being transparent, is that the search committee had failed to comply with the direction of the SC that candidates should be merely former bureaucrats but must be shortlisted from all backgrounds.
Time and again, the favourites of the ruling political leaders are brought in from the backdoor to be appointed in the CIC or the SCICs.
In a dissent note, Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury, the opposition member in the high-powered selection committee, had earlier stated “Even as the search committee headed by none less than the cabinet secretary of India, arbitrarily and blatantly ignored every facet of transparency and the laid down process, one is forced to conclude that it did not apply its mind at all. The whole exercise smacks of apparent bias and favouritism and therefore renders the entire process untenable.”
The scenario in the states too is grim. The petitioners argued that the state information commission of Maharashtra is functioning with only five commissioners and there is a backlog of nearly 75,000 appeals or complaints as of 31 May 2021.
Similarly, vacancies persist in the SICs of Karnataka, Odisha, and West Bengal despite directions to appoint appropriate numbers of commissioners commensurate with the pending matters.
The bench of Justices S Abdul Nazeer and Krishna Murari heard the matter in the Supreme Court on Wednesday. Justice Nazeer also pointed out that the compliance report was filed more than a year ago. "Let us know the latest position, and file the latest status report, and we will take a call on this," the bench added.
A bench gave four weeks to the Union and state governments to file the latest status report in the matter.
(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”.)