New Delhi: At least four of the 29 information commissions in India are completely defunct, says a report of the Satark Nagrik Sangathan (SNS), an organisation trying to hold the government accountable vis-a-vis the Right to Information Act, 2005.
Jharkhand, Telangana, Mizoram and Tripura have had no information commission with the incumbents retiring. Jharkhand has been without a commission for the past three years and Tripura for two years.
The SNS released a report card on the performance of the information commissions of India for 2022-23 on October 11.
Another six commissions are currently headless, including the Central Information Commission, with the chief information commissioner demitting office on October 3.
Manipur has been functioning without a chief for 56 months and another officer has been made acting commissioner, though no such provision exists in the law.
Chhattisgarh has been functioning without a chief since December 2022, Maharashtra since April this year, Bihar since May and Punjab has been without a chief information commissioner since last month.
Anjali Bhardwaj from the SNS, who was a key person in compiling the report, says, “A consistent behaviour of the government we have seen since 2014 is no information commissioner is ever appointed till civil society moves [the courts]. It’s only at the court’s direction that the government is forced to move.”
Amrita Johri, also of the SNS, says, “A good way to crush the citizen’s fundamental right to information is by making information commissions defunct. With no one to appeal to, an application for information gathers dust till it has no meaning left.”
She continued: “While the Congress regime [also] tried to dilute the Act, it refrained following backlash from civil society. The present government has amended the Act twice, first in 2019 and the second this year through the Digital Personal Data Protection Act. Each time, the RTI Act has got only weaker.”
For instance, the tenure, salary and pension of information commissioners were envisaged and written down clearly in the original Act. In 2019, this was amended. From a five-year tenure and a salary at par with a Supreme Court judge, the Act now says these are conditions that the Centre will decide.
As a result, an information commissioner who was appointed in 2020 was a journalist and author of two books on Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Uday Mahurkar. One of the selection committee’s members, leader of the opposition Adhir Ranjan Choudhary, pointed out in his protest note that Mahurkar had not even applied for the job.
“In fact, the government is now careful about who they appoint. Sometimes their own appointee passes an order to make Modi’s college degree public. Therefore, the government knows that apart from weakening the law, the best course is not to appoint anyone,” says Johri.
The other way to deny information is to keep appeals pending, finds the SNS. As many as “3,21,537 appeals and complaints were pending on June 30, 2023 in the 27 information commissions, from which data was obtained. The backlog of appeals and complaints has been steadily increasing in commissions,” the report said.
“The 2019 assessment had found that as of March 31, 2019, a total of 2,18,347 appeals and complaints were pending in the 26 information commissions from which data was obtained, which climbed to 2,86,325 as of June 30, 2021 and then crossed 3 lakh as of June 30, 2022.
“Using the average monthly disposal rate and the pendency in commissions, the time it would take for an appeal/complaint to be disposed was computed.
“The assessment shows that West Bengal SIC [state information commission] would take an estimated 24 years & 1 month to dispose [of] a matter. A matter filed on July 1, 2023 would be disposed [of] in the year 2047 at the current monthly rate of disposal!
“In Chhattisgarh and Maharashtra SICs, estimated time for disposal is more than 4 years and in Odisha and Arunachal Pradesh more than 2 years. The assessment shows that 10 commissions would take 1 year or more to dispose [of] a matter.”
The report goes on to say that an “analysis of penalties imposed by information commissions shows that the commissions did not impose penalties in 91% of the cases where penalties were potentially imposable.”
Besides, it is mandatory to table an annual report in parliament. The report says that 19 out of 29 information commissions or 66% in all have not published their annual report for 2021-22.