New Delhi: The status report filed by the Centre on April 24, 2020, in the ongoing Supreme Court case regarding the non-appointment of information commissioners and lack of transparency in the appointment process has left transparency activists flummoxed.
While the Centre claimed that “the process of appointment in respect of Information Commissioners in Central Information Commission has been completed within three months as directed” by the Supreme Court in its order of December 16, 2019, four posts of information commissioners are still vacant in the panel.
Reference to pre-December 16 event
In the status report, filed through the under secretary in the Department of Personnel and Training, the central government submitted that, in compliance of the apex court’s order of December 16, 2019, the government has “put the duly approved composition of search committee on the official website” of DoPT on December 23.
However, the status report – in a case filed by RTI activists Anjali Bhardwaj, Commodore (Retd.) Lokesh Batra and Amrita Johri – provided a detailed account of developments that took place before the December 16, 2019 order of the Supreme Court.
The Centre said in compliance with the court’s directive on filling up the vacancies of information commissioners, it had “an advertisement inviting particulars of interested persons for the 4 posts of Information Commissioners in the Central Information Commission was published earlier on the website of this Department on January 4, 2019, and also in all editions of 4 newspapers (2 each in English and Hindi) on January 8, 2019.” The government further submitted that January 25 was the last date for receipt of applications and that “256 applications had been received” till then.
These applications, it said, were placed before the search committee in its meeting on November 21, 2019.
‘Fresh advertisements issued as SC stipulated specifying terms and conditions of appointment’
The Centre also said that taking note of the apex court’s judgment of February 15, 2019, which stated that the terms and conditions on which appointments of information commissioners are to be made should be specifically stipulated in the advertisement, the search committee had called for fresh applications by re-advertising the posts.
It said a fresh advertisement was published on the department’s website on December 12, 2019, and in four newspapers on December 14, 2019. The last date for the receipt of applications was January 3, 2020, and 250 applications were received by the due date.
Chief IC and one information commissioner appointed
The search committee then met on February 3 and February 13 for shortlisting the candidates. The applications of all shortlisted candidates were placed before the committee during its meeting on February 18 and it recommended the name of Amita Pandove as information commissioner. The president later gave his assent to her appointment on February 24 and she took an oath on March 6.
The Centre stated that the process for the appointment of the chief information commissioner was initiated on November 5, 2019, in anticipation of the vacancy arising in January 2020. The search committee was constituted and the advertisement was uploaded on the DoPT website on December 12 and placed in four newspapers on December 14. A total of 106 applications were received and the search committee met on February 3 and 13 to shortlist the candidates. Thereafter, a committee constituted under section 12, sub section 3 of the RTI Act recommended the name of Bimal Julka for the post and he was administered an oath on March 6 following the president’s assent.
Panel headed by PM ‘unanimously’ selected Julka, Pandove
On the issue of transparency, the Centre submitted that the committee constituted as per Section 12(3) of the RTI Act comprised of the prime minister as the chairperson, and the leader of opposition in the Lok Sabha and a Union cabinet minister as members. It said the names of Julka and Pandove were recommended ‘unanimously’ by this panel.
The Centre also said that as stated by the court, “the terms and conditions that would apply for appointments to the post of the Information Commissioner had been clearly stated in the advertisement.”
It also claimed that “the process of appointment in respect of Information Commissioners in Central Information Commission has been completed within three months as directed” by the Supreme Court in its order of December 16, 2019.
Activists accuse Centre of continued violation of SC’s directions
Meanwhile, transparency rights activists have issued a statement accusing the Centre of continued violation of the apex court’s directions.
“In the last hearing on December 16, 2019, the Supreme Court had directed the Central Government to complete the process of appointment of information commissioners to the CIC within a period of 3 months. Even though the time limit set by the Supreme Court expired on March 16, 2020, the Central Government has failed to fill the vacant posts,” the statement said, adding that four posts of information commissioners continue to remain vacant.
The activists have also charged that because the commission was functioning with just seven information commissioners, including the chief, as against its sanctioned strength of 11, the backlog of appeals and complaints has risen to nearly 36,000 up from 33,701 since the time of the last hearing in December 2019.
Regarding the Centre’s claim that it had abided by the Supreme Court’s directions on ensuring transparency in the process of appointment, the activists pointed out that the apex court’s judgment of February 15, 2019, required the government to put up the names of the members of the search committee and to make timely and transparent appointments to the CIC.
‘Details of agenda, minutes of search, selection committee meetings, file notings not made public’
“The judgment inter-alia required disclosure of the agenda and minutes of search and selection committee meetings, criteria adopted by the search committee for shortlisting candidates, the advertisement issued for the vacancies, the list of applicants, notification of appointments, file notings and correspondence related to appointments,” the activists said, adding that “other than the names of the members of the search committee and the advertisement, no other details have been placed in the public domain in violation of the directions of the Supreme Court.”
Thus, the activists charged that there was a blatant violation of the orders of the court both on account of the norms of transparency that were to be followed and the filling up of vacancies in the CIC.