SC Asks States for Updates on Vacancies, Pendency in Information Commissions

The neglect of information commissions has been seen, in the past, as a means to blunt the effect of the RTI legislation.

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New Delhi: The Supreme Court on Wednesday, August 18 directed states to file status reports on the numbers of vacancies and pending pleas in State Information Commissions (SICs) under the Right to Information (RTI) Act.

A bench of Justices S. Abdul Nazeer and Krishna Murari on July 7 had sought a report from the Centre and states on their compliance with its 2019 verdict asking them to ensure time-bound appointments to posts of Information Commissioners (ICs) at the Central Information Commission (CIC) and state panels under the transparency law.

In an important verdict on the transparency law on February 15, 2019, the apex court had come out with a slew of directions regarding these appointments. It had ordered that the selection process to fill vacancies at the CIC and SICs should begin two months before they arise and that the search committees should select people of eminence from various fields and not be limited to bureaucrats.

Earlier this year, the court had noted that the Centre’s last status report on compliance was filed over a year ago and had asked Additional Solicitor General (ASG) Madhavi Divan to file a fresh one on the status of vacancies, the steps taken to fill them and observance of other directions.

In its order, the bench had directed the respondents – Union of India and states – to file ‘status and compliance reports’ within four weeks of the order being passed. The bench also granted permission to the petitioner – Anjali Bhardwaj, RTI activist and member of the Satark Nagrik Sangathan – to file an additional affidavit in the meantime.

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The top court was, at the time, hearing Bhardwaj’s plea seeking implementation of the 2019 verdict on appointments to the CIC and SICs. Bhardwaj had also sought direction to government authorities on the implementation of the top court’s order, asking them to appoint ICs.

Senior advocate Prashant Bhushan, appearing for the petitioner, had said an application had been filed for filling up of vacancies in CIC and SICs.

“Directions were given in 2020 that these posts need to be filled up well in time. Another important direction was issued. The court had deprecated the practice of selecting only bureaucrats or having a selection committee made up only of bureaucrats,” Bhushan had said.

Further, he had pointed out that vacancies continued to exist in SICs in states like Maharashtra, Odisha, Karnataka and West Bengal and that there was a need to implement the Supreme Court’s directions in their entirety.

Bhushan had also alleged that around 75,000 cases under the RTI legislation in the Maharashtra SIC and 36,000 in the CIC were pending adjudication and stated that the efforts were being made to render the RTI legislation ineffective.

With regards to the selection of ICs, the Supreme Court in 2019 had stated that the bureaucratic bias in the selection process was “writ large” and that the parliament had intended for persons of eminence in public life to be taken into the information commissions. It dubbed the overwhelming tendency of appointees to be coming from public service to be a “strange phenomenon”.

To bring in transparency in the selection process, the apex court suggested that states adopt the Centre’s process in which it uploads the names of the search committee, the names of the candidates who have been shortlisted as well as the criteria followed for selection on the CIC’s website.

The top court had then directed the Centre and eight states – West Bengal, Orissa, Maharashtra, Gujarat, Nagaland, Andhra Pradesh, Kerala and Karnataka – to fill up the vacancies without any delay within a period of six months.