Government

Information Panel Strength Hits All-Time Low in Modi Era

No new appointments have been made to the Central Information Commission since 2016.

New Delhi: From Monday, the Central Information Commission (CIC) will function with only three commissioners – as opposed to a sanctioned strength of 11, including the chief. The present crisis has arisen because the Narendra Modi government has since 2016 failed to fill any vacancies in the body – probably because the commission has been at the forefront of issuing orders inconvenient to the ruling BJP.

Be it asking Delhi University to disclose the details of Modi’s degree or asking the Centre to reveal details about demonetisation or pulling up the Reserve Bank of India for its refusal to disclose details about the big loan defaulters, the panel’s actions have often caused discomfiture to the government and autonomous institutions.

The CIC plays an important role in ensuring compliance with the Right to Information Act, 2005 by concerned public authorities. It takes up appeals of non-compliance and denial of information. It also has powers to impose a penalty of up to Rs 25,000 on public information officers for refusal to provide information.

The panel – for the third time under the present regime – will also be functioning without a chief information commissioner. R.K. Mathur, who until recently held the post, retired on November 24. Apart from him, the term of information commissioners Yashovardhan Azad and M. Sridhar Acharyulu ended on November 21 while Amitava Bhattacharya’s term expired on December 1.

The CIC has now been left with just three information commissioners – Sudhir Bhargava, Bimal Julka and Divya Prakash Sinha.

No appointment of commissioners without court nudge since 2014

The inertia on the part of the Centre has been witnessed despite RTI activists, the commission itself, the Delhi high court and even the Supreme Court flagging the issue. In fact, since 2014, the Centre has not made any appointments without courts nudging it. When the BJP government came to power in May 2014, it took over a year to make the first appointment on the commission.

Also read: Despite Vacancies, CIC Ups Disposal Rate, Improves Quality of Orders, Study Finds

The situation has been particularly chaotic in the matter of appointment of chief information commissioners. After Rajeev Mathur retired in August 2014, the Centre took ten months to fill the post. As the commission remained headless, a public interest litigation was filed in the Delhi high court by activists R.K. Jain, Commodore (Retd) Lokesh Batra and Subhash Agarwal against the delay.

The high court observed in the matter that “non-appointment of the chief information commissioner has virtually frustrated the very purpose of the Right to Information Act, 2005, we are of the view that it is necessary for this court to monitor the steps that are being taken for filling up the vacancies in question so as to ensure that all the vacancies are filled up within a timeframe”.

Centre took ten months to appoint chief IC

Vijai Sharma was appointed the chief IC in June 2015 and in its order in the case in November that year, the high court issued a time-frame to fill up the vacancies. But the Centre did not take up the court’s observation and direction seriously.

After Sharma retired in December 2015, it appointed R.K. Mathur to the post in the following month. Thereafter, on the directions of the Supreme Court, it appointed three more information commissioners in 2016. No new appointments have been made since.

As the number of vacancies rose to four this year, activists Batra, and Anjali Bhardwaj and Amrita Johri of National Campaign for Peoples’ Right to Information filed a PIL in the Supreme Court. That, however, was not enough to stir the government into action.

CIC urged DoPT to fill vacancies urgently

An RTI query filed by Batra revealed that in May, the commission wrote to the secretary, Department of Personnel and Training, which is the nodal department for RTI matters, to seek “filling up of vacancies of central information commissioner/information commissioners”.

Through this letter, the commission communicated to the Centre that four of its commissioners had demitted office in the recent past and that only one chief information commissioner and six central information commissioner were “in position”.

It also cautioned that “by December 1, 2018, the chief information commissioner and three more information commissioners shall demit office on completion of tenure” and “this would leave only three information commissioners” in the panel.

‘No response from Centre’

Despite the commission calling for urgent action, the Centre appeared unmoved. In reply to a query, all it said was: “Central Information Commission has communicated only once with the government on the subject of filling up posts of commissioners in CIC.”

This was found to be strange by RTI activists who pointed out that in the Namit Sharma case in November 2012, the Supreme Court ruled that “selection process should be commenced at least three months prior to the occurrence of vacancy”.

SC directed Centre to disclose by when it would fill vacancies

The fact that the Centre allowed brought a situation in which the commission is functioning with just three information commissioners becomes suspect since in July this year, the Supreme Court had directed it to disclose by when it would be filling the posts. The direction had come on the plea by activists filed earlier this year which had also demanded that the appointments be made in a timely and transparent manner.

Also read: Short-Staffed Information Commission Suggests New Ways to Deal With ‘Frivolous’ Queries

On July 28, the apex court expressed its displeasure at the delay and directed the additional solicitor general, appearing for the Centre, to file an affidavit with details of the number of vacancies that will be filled, the time-frame within which they will be filled and also an explanation on why no vacancies were filled following an advertisement that was issued in 2016.

Centre issues advertisement, reluctant to share details of applicants

In order to avoid a dressing down by the court, the Centre issued an advertisement for filling up the vacancies in the CIC. It, however, did not mention the number of posts. Also, while just about three months had remained then for the retirement of the chief IC, his post was not mentioned in the advertisement.

It was also submitted before the court that while the advertisement did not mention the tenure of information commissioners, it stated that salaries will be specified at the time of appointment. Earlier in July, the Centre had also tried to table the draft RTI Amendment Bill which sought to give it the power to control the salaries and tenure of information commissioners. However, it had postponed the move as it was criticised as one that would have a serious impact on the independence of commissioners.

In the case, the Supreme Court also directed the Centre to file a detailed affidavit on how it proposed to fill the posts. On August 27, the Centre submitted that the last date for filing applications would be August 31. But when the Court demanded to know the details of the shortlisted applicants, the Modi government submitted that “no such practice is followed in any other equivalent high-level appointments of government”.