New Delhi: Right to Information (RTI) activists have accused the Centre of arbitrariness in filling up the posts of the chief and other information commissioners in the Central Information Commission (CIC).
During a hearing in a case filed by activists in the Supreme Court over the inordinate delay in appointments, they charged that the search committee violated its mandate while shortlisting candidates who did not even apply.
The petition in the case was filed by Anjali Bhardwaj and Amrita Johri of the National Campaign for People’s Right to Information and Commodore (Retd.) Lokesh Batra. Appearing for them, counsel Prashant Bhushan, Pranav Sachdeva and Rahul Gupta submitted before a bench of Justices A.K. Sikri, S. Abdul Nazeer and M.R. Shah that the search committee had not revealed any rational criteria for shortlisting the candidates.
They said that people who did not even apply for the vacancies were considered and shortlisted. The petitioners also stated that the Centre had in its affidavit submitted on August 27, 2018, in the case submitted under point 10(c) that the search committee devises modalities for shortlisting candidates out of the applications received.
However, they said the minutes of the search committee revealed that no rational criteria were adopted on the basis of which the short-listing was done.
‘Search committee functioned in ad hoc manner’
Also, they charged that according to the minutes – uploaded by the Department of Personnel and Training (DoPT), the nodal department for RTI matters – the search committee also functioned in an absolute ad hoc manner.
Elaborating on this aspect, the petitioners said people who were appointed members of the committee also applied for the posts on offer and had to be subsequently replaced. Also, they said, one of the persons appointed information commissioner, Suresh Chandra, had not even applied for the post.
Defective advertisement issued yet again for more vacancies
The petitioners, who earlier accused the Centre of issuing defective advertisements in July 2018, accused the government of repeating its mistakes in the advertisement issued on January 4 for filling the four remaining posts in the CIC.
The advertisement and notification did not specify the salaries and tenure of information commissioners, even though these are defined in the RTI Act, they said. The petitioners pointed out that this issue was flagged earlier as well through an affidavit.
During the hearing, the Centre also filed an affidavit. The court, after taking cognisance of all the matters raised, directed that the petitioner should file a reply and the government a report on all the issues. All the states have also been told to file their reports before the case comes up for a hearing next on January 29.
Original plea accused Centre, states of stifling RTI Act
The original petition accused Central and state governments of attempting to “stifle the functioning of the RTI Act by failing to do their statutory duty of ensuring the appointment of commissioners in the Central Information Commission and State Information Commissions, in a timely manner”.
It also underscored the need for transparency in the appointment of commissioners stating that “…lack of transparency in the appointment of information commissioners, and the violation of directions of the Supreme Court regarding the procedure for appointment of information commissioners, is undermining the institution of the information commission”.
Activists accused PM-led panel, search panel of bias towards ex-bureaucrats
Incidentally, even after the Centre announced the appointment of the chief information commissioner and four information commissioners through a gazette notification on January 1, the RTI activists were not enthused.
Rather, they accused the selection committee headed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and the search committee chaired by the cabinet secretary of appointing only bureaucrats as central information commissioners. They also pointed out that all four shortlisted candidates for the post of chief IC were retired IAS officers, including Sudhir Bhargava, who finally got the nod.
Only bureaucrats shortlisted in violation of SC guidelines
Venkatesh Nayak of the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative stated that while in Union of India vs Namit Sharma the apex court tried making the appointment process more transparent and diverse, “both the search committees and the selection committee ignored this decision by favouring retired or serving bureaucrats while making shortlists and recommendations for appointment respectively.”
He also alleged that there was a deep gender bias in the process of appointment of the chief information commissioner as “no women were included in this shortlist”.
This despite there being four women applicants.
The appointment process was also questioned on the grounds of how the applicants were rejected. Nayak said serving information commissioners Bimal Julka and D.P. Sinha were not even shortlisted despite them applying for the post of chief IC.
On the other hand, he charged that the Centre handpicked at least four candidates despite them not even applying for the post of chief information commissioner.
When it came to the rejection of candidates, again the process was opaque. Nayak asked for the grounds on which the application of a former high court judge for the post of information commissioner was rejected. He also questioned why the candidature of a woman applicant, who retired as the chief secretary of the government of Karnataka, was given less weight than that of the former additional chief secretary of Gujarat – who did not even apply.
Were PMO, cabinet secretariat behind delay in appointments?
Meanwhile, Batra, who is co-petitioner in the PIL and who first flagged these anomalies, said the Centre has not given up on amending the RTI Act. He said the advertisement issued on January 4 for the appointment of the four remaining ICs shows its intent to introduce an ordinance with respect to the RTI Amendment Bill 2018.
On the basis of RTI replies obtained by him, Batra also stated that the DoPT submitted files to the PMO in 2016 and 2017 for filling the vacancies and that these were never uploaded on its site.
He questioned who was sitting on these files and why. “Shockingly, it is now clear that every effort made by the DoPT to trigger the process the appointments of information Commissioners in CIC, was subverted by top authorities (PMO/Cabinet Secretariat),” he charged.