New Delhi: Despite the Supreme Court directing the Centre in February 2019 to ensure that vacancies in the information commissions are filled without delay, the Central Information Commission has once again become headless following the retirement of Chief IC Sudhir Bhargava.
This apart, four other posts in the CIC are lying vacant and as such, the CIC is working with a reduced strength of just six information commissioners as against a sanctioned strength of 11.
Despite SC order Centre moved slowly to find replacement for CIC
Pointing out how the Centre has shown scant regard for either the institution that is the main body for upholding people’s right to information or the apex court’s directions, Anjali Bhardwaj of Satark Nagrik Sangathan has pointed out how despite the retirement of Bhargava on January 11 this year being a routine one, the Central government made no efforts to find his replacement on time.
“It was a routine retirement and his date of retirement was known from the time Mr. Bhargava took over as Chief. Despite this, the government failed to appoint the next Chief information Commissioner in a timely manner and has allowed the CIC to become headless,” she said.
Incidentally, Bhardwaj along with her colleague Amrita Johri and RTI activist Commodore Lokesh K. Batra (retired) had moved the Supreme Court when the Centre repeatedly delayed appointment of information commissioners.
Pending cases have risen by over 7,000 in just one year
Talking about the latest development, she said at present five posts of information commissioners in the CIC, including that of the Chief, are vacant. Due to this, she noted, the number of pending cases has been rising alarmingly.
The number of pending cases as of January 15, 2020, stood at nearly 34,500, she said, adding that this was far higher than the figure of 27,364 recorded on January 1, 2019. Moreover, she said of the five vacancies at the moment, four have persisted since November 2018.
In February 2019, SC directed vacancies be filled without delay
Bhardwaj recalled how in its February 2019 judgment on a PIL regarding timely and transparent appointment of information commissioners, the Supreme Court had directed that vacancies in information commissions should be filled without delay by initiating the process of appointment one to two months prior to the date on which the vacancy is occurring to minimise the time lag between the occurrence of a vacancy and filling up of the vacancy.
“The court had also held that in case CIC does not have Chief Information Commissioner or other Commissioners with required strength, it may badly affect the functioning of the Act which may even amount to negating the very purpose for which this Act came into force,” she said.
A year after advertisement was issued for four posts, no appointment yet
On the directions of the Supreme Court, Bhardwaj added, even though an advertisement was issued inviting applications for four vacancies in January 2019, these were not filled. In September 2019, a fresh petition was filed to the Supreme Court regarding the failure of the central government and some state governments to fill vacancies in information commissions as per the February 2019 directions of the SC.
Taking cognizance of the vacancies in the CIC, the SC had on November 6 directed the Union of India to submit a status report. Subsequently, the government filed its report in a sealed cover. This report showed that in response to the January 2019 advertisement of the four vacancies, 256 applications were received.
The search committee then met in November 2019 and decided to re-issue the advertisement in light of the amendments made to the RTI Act in July 2019 regarding the tenure, salary and terms of service of information commissioners. The new advertisements were issued on December 12, 2019.
In its order on December 16, 2019 the Supreme Court directed the government to place in the public domain the names of the search committee and complete the process of appointments within three months.
Details on applicants still not being placed in public domain
However, Bhardwaj pointed out that in violation of the February 2019 SC judgment of the SC, information regarding the number and particulars of applications received, the names of members of the selection committee or the criteria adopted for shortlisting applications have still not been placed in public domain.