Complaint Panels Will 'Compromise' Information Commission: Former Commissioners

Former CICs say 'independent minded commissioners' are being targeted by the Centre and question why similar mechanisms do not exists for judges and election commissioners.

New Delhi: The move by the Centre to set up two separate committees to receive complaints against chief information commissioner (CIC) and the central information commissioners has not gone down well with former incumbents. They argue that it is a bid to rein in “independent minded commissioners” and would compromise the independence of the information panel.

Former CIC Wajahat Habibullah said, “I don’t know what is the objective behind the move but under the law the decisions of the Central Information Commission are not questionable by any authority except courts.”

Stating that there is “no appeal against the decision of the CIC,” he wondered “whether the committee really has a basis in law.”

‘Move would compromise commission’

Insisting that the provision would require an amendment in the original Right to Information Act, 2005, Habibullah, who was the first head of the commission, also noted that the move would undermine its independence.

On whether a mechanism is necessary to receive complaints against the commissioners while ensuring the commission’s independence, Habibullah said, “How can it be? Why don’t you set up such a group of people to look into complaints against high court and Supreme Court judges. Or for that matter, even the Election Commission of India.”

Also Read: Why Does the RBI Habitually Defy India’s Right to Information Ecosystem?

The Centre has through the department of personnel and training proposed two different committees. The committee that will look into complaints against the CIC is proposed to have the cabinet secretary, DoPT secretary and a retired CIC as members. The other panel for information commissioners is proposed to have as its members secretary (coordination) in cabinet secretariat, secretary (DoPT) and a retired information commissioner.

Commissioners insulated from complaints at present

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 full commission met on March 27 to discuss the proposal and opposed it unanimously.

Right to Information activist Anjali Bhardwaj has also criticised the move, terming it an attack on the independence of the commission.

‘Attempt to rein in independent minded commissioners’

Former central information commissioner Shailesh Gandhi, who was probably the first in the commission to expose inefficiency and corruption in government departments, said the move to receive complaints against commissioner in the way proposed was “bad”.

“There is no question about it. This is meant to control independent-minded commissioners. There is a fundamental reason that most of these commissioners, not all of them, are beholden to the government which appoints them. Even in earlier times, that was the case because their appointment was a non-transparent arbitrary exercise,” he explained.

The appointment process, he said, was flawed. “There is no transparency or real method of selecting these people. It has generally been an act of political patronage or bureaucratic networking.”

Overall, he said, “The situation is not a very good situation but a few commissioners turned out to be independent minded and I think this government is not happy with that and wants to control them – which is condemnable.”

RTI activist and former Information Commissioner Shailesh Gandhi. Credit: Gaurav Vivek Bhatnagar

Commissions should have control over complaint mechanism

Having said that, Gandhi said, “There needs to be some mechanism for complaints against commissioners to be entertained – right now there is none.”

But, he demanded that, “This mechanism should not be created by the government, it should be left to the commissions themselves. It may involve RTI activists or even a bureaucrat, but more importantly the criteria should be laid down on what kinds of complaints would be accepted and what would be the process.”

Also Read: Judges’ Medical Expenses Will Not Be Disclosed Under RTI, says SC

He said not having a complaint mechanism for all judicial or quasi-judicial bodies is a big disservice for it says that “all these are people who are fantastic and can do no wrong”.

Gandhi also demanded that whenever there is an enquiry into complaints, the results should be put on the website or else the committees probing complaints can also get compromised.

The fundamental issue, Gandhi said, is that in all commissions – for women, children, information – the selection is purely arbitrary and not transparent. The process should be transparent so that commissioners are not beholden to the government that appoints them.