Nine Months Late, Modi Selects Chief Information Commissioner

New Delhi: Nine months after the last Chief Information Commissioner (Chief IC) retired, the government and opposition have finally agreed on the name of his successor,  though his or her name will not be made public until President Pranab Mukherjee returns to India after his visit to Sweden and Belarus.

Until then, the 203 persons who applied for the top post can continue to hope they made the grade.

From a clerk in the Indian Army and a Madhya Pradesh municipal worker at one end of the government hierarchy to several secretaries, serving Information Commissioners, judges and professors on the other, as many as 67 people currently drawing a government salary are among those who threw their hat in the ring for the post of Chief IC, the official who is the last port of call for citizens whose requests for information are thwarted by government departments across the country.

On Monday, the high-level section committee met and selected a candidate. According to PTI, the senior most Information Commissioner, Vijai Sharma, is tipped to be new Chief IC.

If that is so, RTI activists are bound to criticise the inordinate delay in his appointment. Before Narendra Modi became Prime Minister, the top job at the Central Information Commission (CIC) used to go by convention to the most senior Information Commissioner. Modi, however, decided to throw open the post to “persons of eminence in public life” and placed an advertisement back in  October 2014  seeking applications from the general public.

Though this was seen as a welcome move at the time since only bureaucrats had occupied the important position till then, the nine month long delay in taking a decision on the applications upset RTI activists who saw a design in the delay.

The advertisement opened the post for all those eligible under the Act – namely “a person 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.”

According to an RTI reply received by activist Subhash Chandra Agrawal, of the 553 applications received for the three vacant posts of Information Commissioners, the most, 233, came from persons in ‘administration and governance’, followed by 98 from law, 70 from management, 64 from science and technology, 29 from journalism, 27 from social service, 13 from mass media and 19 from ‘others’.

The May 23 meeting of the selection committee, headed by Prime Minister Modi, could not make progress as Congress leader Mallikarjun Kharge – an ex-officio member as leader of the largest opposition party in the Lok Sabha –  had not been provided the names of the shortlisted candidates well in advance and wanted more time to go through them. But at their meeting on  Monday, according to Kharge, a decision was reached.

The selection committee meetings were also attended by Home Minister Rajnath Singh, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley and Minister of State for Personnel Jitendra Singh. Apart from the Chief IC, the panel selected three ICs. Another committee, composed of the same members, chose the Chief Vigilance Commissioner and one Vigilance Commissioner.

RTI activists have over the past few months been protesting the delay in the appointment of the CIC, accusing the Modi government of wilfully undermining the right to information.

The matter of delay in the appointment of the Chief IC and three ICs is also being heard by the Delhi High Court, where the Centre had on May 21 submitted that the candidates for the posts have been shortlisted and granted vigilance clearance.

The High Court had earlier directed the Centre to expedite the process after a public interest litigation was filed by RTI activists R.K. Jain, Lokesh K. Batra and Subhash Chandra Agarwal claiming that the delay in the appointment of the CIC had held to a piling up of complaints and a massive backlog of cases. The petitioners, who were represented by senior advocate Prashant Bhushan, also said that despite the commission sending two “distress” letters to the Prime Minister’s Office, no action had been taken by it in the matter.

Last month, Congress president Sonia Gandhi had also flagged the issue in the Lok Sabha and accused the Centre of trying to demolish democratic institutions. Pointing out to the key vacancies, she said that “the Prime Minister had made many promises to the people on transparency and good governance and continues to do so, but this government has made sure of the absence of the CIC so that the Prime Minister’s Office, the Supreme Court and the Defence Ministry are not accountable for violations under the Right to Information Act and are protected from public scrutiny.”

The post of CIC, who takes up appeals and complaints against government departments and public authorities, has been lying vacant since August 22, 2014, when Rajiv Mathur retired.

The post of CVC has been lying vacant since September 28, 2014 when Pradeep Kumar finished his term, while that of Vigilance Commissioner has been without an incumbent since September 7. J.M. Garg was its last occupant. For the two positions, the government has received 130 applications.

Meanwhile, speaking at a Swaraj Abhiyan programme on Sunday, Bhushan alleged that attempts were being made to appoint “corrupt” people to the anti-corruption body. He claimed that among the frontrunners for the post of CVC was an Income Tax officer who had deliberately slowed the black money probe. This officer would also meet former CBI Director Ranjit Sinha “on the sly while probing him”, the lawyer-activist claimed.