New Delhi: With the nationwide lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic bringing its work to a grinding halt, the Central Information Commission – that exercises jurisdiction over all central public authorities under the Right to Information Act – has decided to conduct all scheduled hearings through audio or digital conferencing by April 15 “in larger public interest”.
The decision assumes significance since the Centre has repeatedly failed to fill up all CIC posts on time and the Commission is now working with just seven information commissioners, including the chief, in place of the sanctioned 11. Four vacancies in the Commission have persisted since November 2018.
Pendency of cases mounting due to vacancies in panel
The matter of the Central government not adhering to the Supreme Court’s February 2019 directive on filling up the vacant posts has repeatedly been raised in the apex court by RTI activists. But despite the court’s intervention, the Centre has been slow in appointing information commissioners. Due to this, the pendency of cases had shot up to over 34,500 by January 15, 2020. This was over 7,000 more than the pendency level of 27,364 recorded on January 1, 2019.
Over the past two months, activists believe the pendency would have crossed the 40,000 mark. Retired Commodore Lokesh Batra, who was one of the petitioners in the Supreme Court case, said the situation was grim since “no new case is being registered in the present scenario”. He said the decision of the Commission to go digital hearings was a welcome one “as long as option is given to those applicants, who wish to have a personal hearing in CIC, to have those once the situation becomes normal.”
Decision taken in first ever digital meeting of Commission
Incidentally, the recent meeting of the Central Information Commission, in which the decision to go for online hearings, was also the first digital meeting of the panel. This meeting was done via video conferencing to discuss various issues in the wake of the lockdown.
It was chaired by Chief Information Commissioner Bimal Julka and attended by six information commissioners, secretary to the Commission and other senior officers.
It was decided in the meeting that the deputy registrars will fix dates in consultation with the information commissioners and issue the notices in all cases where the contact details of the parties were available. For this it was also decided that the contact details of the nodal CPIOs will be made available to the Deputy Registrars.
Also, the Registrar would train the deputy registrars periodically to iron out the administrative or technical support issues that may arise with the National Informatics Centre.
Commission to extend e-office facility to home computers of its officers
The commission has also decided that all scheduled hearings would start through audio or digital mode by April 15 in larger public interest.
Since the Commission would operate from its office at CIC Bhawan in Munirka, instructions have also been issued that the building be sanitised by the NSL regularly. Also, the Delhi police is being approached for issue of passes to the essential staff of the Commission.
For proper functioning of the system, the NIC is being asked to extend the operation of the e-office to the home computers of the CIC officers too.
The Commission, which would be discussing further modalities on April 7, said “it was collectively agreed” that it would “strive to introduce latest technological tools for its smooth functioning.”