New Delhi: The Supreme Court today issued a slew of directions to the Centre and the state government to make the appointment process of information commissioners and chief information commissioners to the central and state information commissions more transparent and timely.
It also directed that the process of filling up the posts of information commissioners be initiated one to two-months before the vacancy arises.
‘CIC, ICs be appointed on terms similar to those of CEC, ECs’
The bench of Justices A.K. Sikri and S. Abdul Nazeer noted that the Chief Information Commissioner and the Information Commissioners of CIC be appointed on the same terms and conditions as applicable to the Chief Election Commissioner and the Election Commissioners respectively.
It also stated that the terms and conditions on which such appointments are to be made should be specifically stipulated in the advertisement and put on the website as well.
In the “general directions for CIC and SCICs”, the apex court also stated that as far as transparency in appointment of information commissioners is concerned, “the Central Government is now placing all necessary information, including issuance of the advertisement, composition of Selection Committee, etc, on the website”. It directed that all the states to also follow this system.
‘Advertise posts well before vacancy takes place’
The apex court also held that the vacancies should be advertised well before an incumbent in due to retire and that the selection criteria adopted by the search committee should be made public. It also said that the Centre would “put on the website the names of the Search Committee, the names of the candidates who have been shortlisted as well as the criteria which is followed for selection”.
It also said that to ensure that “there is not much time lag between the occurrence of vacancy and filling up of the said vacancy”, the process for filling up of the post should be initiated one to two months in advance.
Appoint persons of eminence from specified steams as information commissioners
The court said as per the constitution of the CIC “the Chief Information Commissioner and Information Commissioners shall be persons of eminence in public life with wide knowledge and experience in law, science and technology, social service, management, journalism, mass media or administration and governance.”
Thus it held “any person of eminence in public life” from these steams was “qualified” for the post.
The Bench also came down on the bureaucracy for trying to monopolise the posts. It said: “Many persons who fit in the aforesaid criteria have been applying for these posts. However, a strange phenomenon which we observe is that all those persons who have been selected belong to only one category, namely, public service, i.e., they are the government employees.” Further, it said even the Search Committee which short-lists the persons consists of bureaucrats only and noted that “for these reasons, official bias in favour of its own class is writ large in the selection process.”
The Bench thus demanded that the Search Committee “pick up suitable candidates from other categories as well” to “ensure wider representative character in the composition of CIC”.
Petition asked for transparent, timely appointments on the basis of a definite criteria
The Bench also took note of the fact that in their plea, RTI activists Anjali Bhardwaj, Amrita Johri and Commodore (Retd.) Lokesh Batra had through their counsel Prashant Bhushan primarily asked for three things. These were “timely filling up of the vacancies to ensure that the work of the information commissioners does not suffer; transparency in the mode of appointments; and terms and conditions on which these appointments are to be made should be clearly stated.”
The court said “the petitioners are right in their submissions that there have been undue delays in filling up of these vacancies” and said it expected these to be filled up “well in time” in future.
Petition sought timely filling up of vacant posts
Talking to The Wire, Bhardwaj said the public interest litigation was filed because due to the rising vacancies the pendency of cases was increasing. “As such people have to wait for a very long time to be heard and for their appeals to be disposed of.”
Giving details of the pendency level, she said “right now in the Central Information Commission there are close to 30,000 cases that are pending and therefore it would take close to a hear for the cases to come up for hearing after they are filed. Similarly, in West Bengal it is currently taking up to 10 years for someone who has filed an appeal or a complaint to get a hearing. So this leads to a violation of people’s right to information in many ways.”
Bhardwaj said the petition also pointed out before the apex court that in Andhra Pradesh there has been no functioning information commission for the past two years now.
“Therefore,” she said, “the prayer before the court was that timely appointments should be made even before a vacancy arises. Also, it was pleaded that the governments must ensure that the process of appointment starts well before the vacancy.”
‘Fill up vacancies being processed in two months, rest in six months’
As for the remaining vacancies, she said, the Bench in its oral order stated that in all cases where the selection process has been initiated it should be completed within a couple of months and in all other cases the vacancies should be filled up within six months.
Reacting to the judgment said, Bhardwaj said: “What was read out was very positive. The court appeared to have basically agreed with all the prayers. We are very satisfied, especially what was read out in the court. It seems to be a landmark judgment.”
Another RTI activist and petitioner in the case, Commodore (Retd) Lokesh K. Batra also termed it a landmark ruling saying all the prayers have been accepted by the apex court. However, he expressed his apprehension on whether the government would implement the order in totality. He referred to how not a single appointment in the Central Information Commission was made by the Centre without court intervention.
Batra also stated that the six months’ time given to the government to fill up all the vacancies was too long. “By that time the pendency of cases would have gone up further,” he cautioned.
The former soldier reminded that between April 25, 2018, when the appeal was filed, and February 14, 2019, a day before the order, the pendency of cases in CIC alone rose by 5,348 from 23,500 to 28,848.