New Delhi: The Department of Personnel and Training, which is the nodal department for Right to Information related matters, has refused to provide details of the Central government’s proposal to set up two committees to inquire into complaints against serving and former members of the Central Information Commission (CIC).
In response to a query by RTI activist Venkatesh Nayak of the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, the department stated: “This proposal is at initial stage, comments of CIC have been sought on the proposal, which is yet to be received. Nothing concrete, which can be submitted in reply to the application under RTI Act, 2005.”
CIC full bench discussed Centre’s proposal in late March
The Wire had earlier reported the composition of the two committees and how the move was criticised by some former chief information commissioners and information commissioners. The committee to look into complaints against the chief information commissioner was proposed to have the cabinet secretary, DoPT secretary and a retired chief informational commissioner as members. The other panel for information commissioners was proposed to have as its members secretary (coordination) in cabinet secretariat, secretary (DoPT) and a retired information commissioner.
Some former chiefs stated that ‘independent-minded commissioners’ are being targeted by the Centre and questioned why similar mechanisms – of having panels to probe complaints – do not exist for judges and election commissioners.
As of now, commissioners are insulated from complaints under Section 14(1) of RTI Act. It lays down that they can only be removed by the president after the Supreme Court, on a presidential reference, has, on inquiry, called for their removal.
The issue was taken up for discussion by the full commission on March 27.
CIC yet to send its comments to DoPT
According to the reply furnished by the CPIO of the DoPT to Nayak, the CIC is yet to send its comments to the Centre on the proposed constitution of the two committees.
Nayak said he asked the DoPT, which is under the Prime Minister’s Office, for photocopies of the communication sent to the CIC regarding the proposal to set up the committees, the replies received from the Commission and the file notings and correspondence available regarding the proposal.
He said the Department responded after 28 days. However, Nayak was left dissatisfied by the answer the DoPT gave. He said “the DoPT’s CPIO has neither rejected the RTI application nor supplied the requested information – these are the only two courses of action valid and available to him under the RTI Act.”
Nayak added that “under Section 4(1)(c) and (d) of the RTI Act, the DoPT has a statutory obligation to make all relevant facts about such an important proposal public as citizens are an affected party.”
However, he insisted that the government allowed some “information” to be leaked through the media instead of publicising a copy of the proposal and the details of the decision making process. He said it should have been revealed as to who mooted the idea and who all were involved in the discussion around it.
`Government not keen on taking stakeholders on board’
Nayak also charged that the reply was indicative that “the Government does not want to take into account the very stakeholders whose complaints will provide work for the two inquiry committees.” He said this was against the spirit of the pre-legislative consultation policy adopted in February 2014 which requires all departments, including the DoPT, to seek people’s views on such important proposals.
As for the CIC, Nayak also attacked it by saying it too “elected not to go public with this communication despite civil society and the citizenry standing by it every time the Government sought to amend the Act in a retrograde manner.” He recalled that last year, the civil society and media vigorously opposed the government’s proposal to amend the RTI Act to downgrade the salaries of information commissioners and fix their tenure at will.
At stake, Nayak said, is the financial and operational autonomy of the CIC. He noted that Section 12(4) of the RTI Act states that the CIC will function autonomously without being subject to the directions of any authority. It orders can only be challenged through writs filed in the concerned high courts or Supreme Court.
Nayak cautioned that “these proposals, if implemented, will seriously compromise the autonomy of the CIC. Even more worrisome is the proposal to inquire into complaints against retired members of the CIC.”
He insisted that “these inquiry committees will not only have a chilling effect on the CIC but will also become a trailblazer for state governments to curb the autonomy of State Information Commissions (SICs).”
Nayak said the principle of natural justice demands that the power of examine complaints against CIC should not be placed in the hands of the government, as it is the respondent in 99% of the cases before the CIC.
He suggested that the government should engage in widespread consultation to arrive at an ideal mechanism for taking up complaints against information commissioner. “Making the government’s current proposal along with related file notings public, is an essential pre-condition for this consultative process.”