New Delhi: Though the Supreme Court in December 2018 urged the Centre to maintain transparency in the appointment of information commissioners to the Central Information Commission, recent replies by the government reveal that it has failed to change its approach.
Delays in appointments also continue to plague the body that is meant to uphold the implementation of the Right to Information (RTI) Act.
Glaring biases, opaqueness in earlier appointments
Rights activists are appalled at the situation. They insist that it was after a prolonged legal battle that the Centre appointed Sudhir Bhargava as chief information commissioner at the fag end of 2018, when there were eight vacancies in the commission.
A few days later, it announced the appointment of four information commissioners to the panel against the vacancies advertised in July-August 2018.
RTI activist Venkatesh Nayak had at the time pointed to glaring biases in the appointments to the CIC.
Pendency of cases grew by over 7,000 in five months
Later, in February 2019, the Supreme Court said the Centre cannot appoint only government employees as information commissioners and demanded that people from all walks of life be considered for the key post.
The apex court was hearing a plea filed by RTI activists Anjali Bhardwaj, Commodore Lokesh Batra (retired) and Amrita Johri, who averred how over 23,500 appeals and complaints were pending with the CIC since posts of information commissioners were lying vacant. The situation has only deteriorated since.
Batra recently stated that as of May 31, the pendency has alarmingly grown to 30,697 cases.
SC directed transparency in appointment procedure
He said the norms of transparency in appointments were reiterated by the Supreme Court in its February 15 judgement.
As for the functioning of the Search Committee, he said, the Supreme Court held that “it would also be appropriate for the Search Committee to make the criteria for shortlisting the candidates public, so that it is ensured that shortlisting is done on the basis of objective and rational criteria.”
Centre continues to deny information on appointment process
Batra said he filed an appeal with the Department of Personnel and Training (DoPT), the nodal department for dealing with RTI matters, on May 17 seeking information on the number of applications received for the four posts of information commissioners in the CIC.
He also sought the list with names of applicants, the list of files on which the applications were being processed and the procedure/criterion being applied for processing the names of applicants before they were placed before the search/selection committee. He also requested that he be allowed to inspect the concerned files.
256 applications received for four posts
In its response, the DoPT on May 28 revealed that 256 people had applied for the four posts. It also stated that the CIC is supposed to comprise of a chief IC and not more than ten ICs. At present, the panel has one chief and six ICs.
It held that information on the process of appointment was exempted under Section 8(1)(i) of the RTI Act, 2005. “Since the information in the file would be placed before the Committee of Secretaries and the process of selection of candidates is yet to be completed. It would not be conducive to allow inspection of files,” it added.
‘Denial of information wrong’
Batra said that the denial of information was unlawful since the exemption under Section 8(1)(i) of the RTI Act was for “cabinet papers including records of deliberations of the Council of Ministers, Secretaries and other officers”.
He insisted that the ‘search committee’ cannot be treated as the ‘committee of secretaries’ as “the Cabinet papers are prepared for the ‘Union Cabinet’ for consideration and approval, while that is not the case with ‘search committee’ constituted for the purpose of short-listing panels.”
Another RTI activist claims cases being clubbed, disposed of wrongfully
The pressure on the commission is also impacting the way it is disposing of matters. An RTI activist Shishir Chand recently expressed his disappointment at the manner in which his pleas were handled.
“I was disappointed after five of my pending appeals were clubbed together and disposed of by IC Mr Bimal Julka against the letter and spirit of the RTI Act,” he said, adding that “if this is how CIC deals with appeals in the future, then it is nothing more than a ‘ glorified post office’.”
In a complaint to CIC Bhargava on June 2, Chand wrote that on May 30, five of his second appeals – of which one each were against Director General Health Services and All India Institute of Medical Sciences, and three against Medical Council of India – were clubbed together and listed for hearing before Julka.
While one of the appeals against the MCI had become infructuous after he preferred file inspection, Chand said when he appeared to argue the rest on May 31, he was “shocked to find that all four appeals were disposed of with broadly the same view/observation of the IC i.e no further intervention of this Commission is required.”
Chand noted that these cases were important
On why these cases were important, he said, the DGHS “relied on a misleading ‘weeding out policy’ for not keeping record of old documents and had failed to produce something as crucial as a merit list of successful candidates, who had qualified a national level exam (CBSE AIPMT 1989 exam) and were issued allotment letters by DGHS. He said, “these doctors are still in active service at various hospitals and were dealing with life and death situations.”
He also accused the MCI and AIIMS of denying information about an alleged case of medical negligence against a doctor.