With Four More Information Commissioners Set to Retire, Centre's Deliberate Delay Continues

While the Central Information Commission has a sanctioned strength of 11, four posts are already vacant and four more will be vacant soon. The Centre has not initiated the process of filling the vacancies yet.

New Delhi: Not only has the Centre not filled any vacant information commissioner posts in the Central Information Commission since 2016, it is also yet to respond to the only letter that had been sent by the Commission to it on the issue in May this year.

The lack of urgency, as displayed by information around the sole communication between the Commission and the Narendra Modi government over the issue, assumes significance since the panel – with a sanctioned strength of 11 – is already working with just seven commissioners, including the chief, R.K. Mathur. It would be depleted further as Mathur and three information commissioners are due to retire by December 1.

Information about the letter was revealed by the Commission on Friday in response to a query on the issue by RTI activist Commodore (Retd.) Lokesh K. Batra. On August 30, he had filed an application under the Right to Information Act, 2005 with the panel seeking “complete set of certified copies of all the communications between the Commission and the Government (including Prime Minister’s Office), on the subject of appointments of ICs and Chief IC (if any).”

In the “background” to his application, Batra had stated that there were media reports regarding the Commission interacting or communicating with the government of India (including PMO) on the subject of appointment of the information commissioners and the chief IC in the Commission.

In May, CIC had raised issue of vacancies with Centre

In response to the query, the CPIO of the Commission furnished a reply to Batra on September 7. It contained a letter which was sent on May 15 this year by the panel through its joint secretary to secretary in the department of personnel and training, which is the nodal department for RTI matters, to raise the issue of “filling up of vacancies of Central Information Commissioner/Information Commissioners”.

Through this letter, the Commission had communicated to the Centre that four of its commissioners had demitted office in the recent past and that only one chief information commissioner and six central information commissioner were “in position”.

‘Commission would be left with only 3 commissioner after December 1’

The letter also raised alarm bells, pointing out that “by December 1, 2018, the chief information commissioner and 3 more information commissioners shall demit office on completion of tenure”. Thus, it had noted, “this would leave only 3 information commissioners” in the panel.

The letter had added that it was being sent to elicit “appropriate decision” and that it had the approval of the chief information commissioner.

The letter also contained an annexure which mentioned how the posts left vacant on the retirement of information commissioners M.A. Khan Yusufi (who retired on December 31, 2016); Basant Seth (February 15, 2017); Sharat Sabharwal (September 22, 2017); and Manjula Prashar (January 15, 2018) had not been filled up.

Another annexure had pointed out the retirement dates of four more incumbents who would demit office by December 1, this year. It noted that chief IC Radha Krishna Mathur was due to retire on November 24; information commissioners Yashovardhan Azad and M. Sridhar Acharyulu on November 21 and Amitava Bhattacharya on December 1, 2018.

The panel would be left with just Sudhir Bhargava, Bimal Julka and Divya Prakash Sinha, who are all due to retire in 2020.

‘No response from Centre to CIC on issue of filling vacancies’

Though this letter had indicated that urgent action was needed in filling up the vacancies, Batra insisted that the Centre did not appear serious about the matter. “Central Information Commission (CIC) has communicated only once with the government on the subject of filling up posts of Commissioners in CIC,” he said, adding that going by the RTI response, it was “strange that there has been no communication from the government to CIC on the subject matter.”

Batra had also highlighted how despite a Supreme Court ruling of September 13, 2012 in Namit Sharma case in which the apex court had categorically stated that the “selection process should be commenced at least three months prior to the occurrence of vacancy”, the Centre had not shown any urgency in filling up the posts even long after they had been vacated. The four who would be demitting office also had less than three months to go before completing their tenures, but not attempts are being made to fill the vacancies.

Incidentally, Batra is not the only one who believes that the Centre has deliberately slow-pedalled on the issue of filling up the vacancies in the CIC.

In July this year, the Supreme Court had directed the Centre to disclose by when it would be filling the posts of information commissioners. The apex court had issued the directions on a petition filed by RTI activists Anjali Bhardwaj, Lokesh Batra and Amrita Johri, who had urged it to give directions to ensure that appointments of information commissioners are made in a timely and transparent manner.

During the hearing on July 28 this year, the Supreme Court had also expressed its displeasure at the delay in filling up the vacancies in the CIC. It had then directed the additional solicitor general, appearing for the Centre, to file an affidavit with details of the number of vacancies that will be filled, the time frame within which they will be filled and also an explanation as to why no vacancies were filled following an advertisement that was issued in 2016.

Centre issued a hurried advertisement

Interestingly, on the day of the hearing, the Centre had, in order to avoid a rap from the apex court, issued an advertisement for filling up the vacancies in the CIC, but without mentioning how many posts it intended to fill up.

Appearing for the petitioners, senior advocates Prashant Bhushan, Pranav Sachdeva and Rahul Gupta had pointed this out before the Supreme Court. The petitioners also complained that the Narendra Modi government was trying to push through provisions of the draft RTI Amendment Bill, even though the Bill has not been tabled in parliament. The controversial amendments had sought to give the Centre power to control the salaries and tenure of information commissioners. This, the activists had argued, would have a serious impact on the independence of commissioners.

The petitioners had a copy of the advertisement, noting that while it had not mentioned the tenure of information commissioners, it stated that salaries of information commissioners will be specified at the time of appointment.

Centre told to respond to suggestions, details of procedure of appointments

The petitioners had also given specific suggestions ranging from publishing advertisements for inviting applications, publicly disclosing the eligibility criteria, the procedure and rational criteria for shortlisting candidates, the composition, mandate and minutes of meetings of the screening or search committee and disclosing the names of short-listed candidates so that people may respond if there is any “significant adverse information” about them.

Thereafter the Supreme Court had directed the Centre to examine these suggestions and respond with details of the procedure it will adopt.