As the Union government succeeded in getting the Right to Information (Amendment) Bill passed in the Rajya Sabha on Thursday, there are nearly 32,000 cases of appeals and complaints pending before the Central Information Commission (CIC). According to the CIC’s website, as of July 23, 2019, 28,442 appeals and 3,209 complaints were pending before the body. In total there are 31,651 cases pending.
This is the highest number of pending appeals in the past two-and-a-half years. On April 1, 2017, the number of pending cases was 26,449. RTI activists and former information commissioners believe that the primary reason for such a large number of pending appeals is that several posts of information commissioners are lying vacant.
The CIC and the State Information Commissions (SIC) are the designated appellate organisations that provide information under the RTI Act. Including the chief information commissioner, there are 11 posts of information commissioners within the CIC. Yet at this time, only seven of those posts have been filled.
The government had issued an advertisement to fill the four vacant posts on January 4 this year, but in the past seven months, nobody has been appointed.
On April 26, 2018, a petition urging for the timely appointment of the four information commissioners was filed in the Supreme Court. At that time, there were more than 23,500 pending cases. Since then, the pending cases have increased by 8,000.
One of the petitioners was RTI activist Commodore Lokesh Batra, who expressed concern regarding the pending cases, “It is very surprising that although on the one hand the government is claiming to strengthen the RTI Act, on the other hand it has failed to appoint information commissioners.”
He said that in the past as well, four commissioners had been appointed only after an order from the Supreme Court. Most appointments take place as a result of court orders.
Batra added, “According to the rules, the process of appointing a new commissioner should begin some months before the tenure of the outgoing commissioner ends. But the government does not follow the rules. It does not appoint anyone unless a court orders it to. This is an attempt to weaken the RTI.”
A public interest petition was filed in the Supreme Court in 2018 by RTI activists Anjali Bhardwaj, Amrita Jauhari, and Lokesh Batra urging for the timely appointment of information commissioners and for greater transparency in the process of appointing new information commissioners.
In a significant decision issued by the Supreme Court on February 15 this year, the court ordered that all vacant posts be filled within six months. The bench comprising Justice A.K. Sikri, Justice Abdul Nazeer and Justice Subash Reddy ordered that, in both the CIC and the SICs, the process of finding a new commissioner be initiated two months before the end of the outgoing commissioner’s tenure.
Regarding the posts lying vacant currently, the court said that if the process of finding new commissioners has commenced, then the posts should be filled within two to three months, but if it has not been initiated, then the posts should be filled within six months.
In addition, the Supreme Court has urged for a higher degree of transparency in the process of selecting and appointing information commissioners.
Anjali Bharadwaj, a member of the National Campaign for Right to Information (NCPRI), a non-governmental organisation working towards the improvement of RTI, said that the government should strengthen the RTI law by appointing more information commissioners but instead, it is trying to amend the law in order to make the RTI a puppet of the government.
Bharadwaj also said:
“The government wants to amend the RTI Act in order to dictate the salaries and tenures of state and central information commissioners. It is clear that the government wants to deprive the information commissions and the commissioners of their independence so that they do not take any decision that goes against the government’s will or release any information to the public that the government does not want released.”
With the RTI Amendment Bill passed in the Rajya Sabha, the Centre now has the power to decide the salaries and tenure periods of state and central information commissioners. Previously, according to the RTI Act, the tenure period of an information commissioner was five years or upon reaching 65 years of age, whichever came first.
Previously according to the RTI Act 2005, the chief information commissioner and information commissioners get paid the same as the chief election commissioner and election commissioners respectively, while the state chief information commissioner and the state information commissioners get paid the same as the election commissioner and the chief secretary of the state government respectively.
Venkatesh Nayak, a member of the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative organisation and an RTI activist, says that the government is completely suppressing the democratic process and trying to weaken the RTI, which is a constitutional right.
He added that the public was not consulted at all in the conception of the RTI Amendment Bill and that the government should prioritise the appointment of information commissioners, not the weakening of the Bill.
Several former as well as current information commissioners spoke out against the RTI Amendment Bill and called for the vacant posts to be filled.
Former chief information commissioners Sridhar Acharyulu and Yashovardhan Azad have said that the RTI Act was passed after much deliberation and discussion in 2005. Even then, a provision for the appointment of a deputy commissioner, who would work on the instructions of the Central government, was proposed.
The former commissioners said that the standing committee had rejected the provision because it would effectively reduce the status of information commissioners to that of clerks working for the central government.
The Right to Information Act was passed in the parliament on June 15, 2005. This was after the act had been sent to a standing committee for deliberation and discussion. It was first proposed that the chief information commissioner’s salary would be equal to that of a Central government secretary and the information commissioner’s salary would be equal to that of a joint or additional secretary.
The standing committee’s report made it clear that the committee had taken the matter of the information commissioners’ salaries very seriously. The committee had said, “The Information Commission is an important institution under the [RTI] Act. It is vital that the Information Commission function with absolute independence.”
This is why the committee had suggested that information commissioners be considered at par with election commissioners and the Information Commission at par with the Election Commission.
Sridhar Acharyulu and Yashovardhan Azad also said that “the government is ignoring all the suggestions that had been made by the standing committee after much deliberation and is now saying that the RTI Act was passed in haste. This is utterly wrong. In reality, the new RTI Amendment bill has been brought in haste without any discussion, and its passing would severely reduce the freedom of the information commissioner.”
They also added that the RTI Act is like a ray of light in the darkness. Especially in rural India and amongst the poor, the RTI is a boon and many derive hope from the ten-rupee RTI applications.
Translated from the Hindi original by Karan Dhingra.