New Delhi: Former central information commissioners (CIC) and right to information (RTI) activists have accused the Narendra Modi government of compromising the selection procedure. The selection committee constituted to select commissioners to the panel is meeting on Tuesday, December 11.
Meanwhile, in a separate letter, former CIC M. Sridhar Acharyulu urged President Ramnath Kovind to ensure that the Act is strengthened by appointment of “right persons to the CIC from fields prescribed in that statute” and bureaucrats do not corner majority of the posts.
The activists and former CICs indicted the Centre for dragging its feet over appointment of CICs and not appointing any for the past two years, leading to eight vacancies in the Commission.
In a letter marked to the members of the selection committee, which is headed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the group said it learnt from media reports that the panel was scheduled to meet on December 11 to finalise four names for information commissioners and the chief information commissioner of the CIC.
It charged that the process of inviting applications and shortlisting candidates followed by the government “compromised the appointment procedure”.
‘Advertisements not in accordance with law’
The letter said the government issued an advertisement inviting applications for the post of four information commissioners on July 26 and another on October 23 for the post of the chief IC. “Both advertisements, and the accompanying notifications, were not in keeping with the RTI Act as they did not specify the salaries, allowances and other conditions of service and tenure of information commissioners as provided for in the law.”
The signatories, who included the first chief IC Wajahat Habibullah and former IC Shailesh Gandhi, said the notifications stated that the salary, allowances and other terms and conditions of service “shall be as may be specified at the time of appointment of the selected candidate/s”.
This, they claimed, was at variance with the provisions of the RTI Act since Sections 13(2) and 13(5) provide that the salaries, allowances and other terms of service of the chief and other information commissioners of the Central Information Commission shall be the same as that of the chief election commissioner and election commissioners, respectively.
The chief and other election commissioners are paid a salary equal to the salary of a judge of the Supreme Court, which is decided by the Parliament, they added.
Further, the group wrote that RTI Act provides for a fixed tenure of five years for information commissioners, subject to a retirement age of 65 years. While the tenure has not been specified this time, it said that “previous notifications of vacancies specified the salary, terms of service and tenure of commissioners as per the provisions of the RTI Act.”
‘Information commissioners should be persons of eminence in public life’
The group pointed out that the Act also lays down that the chief information commissioner and information commissioners should be persons of eminence in public life. It expressed apprehension that by not disclosing the tenure and salaries of information commissioners, the Centre may have “dissuaded many people of eminence from applying.”
The signatories to the letter therefore demanded that “the government suitably rectify and re-issue the advertisement for the posts.” They also called for placing these advertisements urgently since eight out of eleven posts of information commissioners in the Central Information Commission were lying vacant.
The concerned citizens – who include activists Anjali Bhardwaj, Aruna Roy, Shekhar Singh, Nikhil Dey, Rakesh Reddy Dubbudu, Venkatesh Nayak, Shaikh Ghulam Rasool, Pankti Jog, Pradip Pradhan, Commodore (Retd.) Lokesh K. Batra and Amrita Johri – have also charged that thus far the procedure of short-listing candidates has been shrouded in secrecy. Lack of transparency, they said, would “erode public trust in the institution” of CIC.
“Information sought under the RTI Act about applications received in response to the advertisements issued for the position of information commissioners and details about the functioning of the search committee was illegally denied by the Department of Personnel & Training,” they said.
Former bureaucrats should not fill up majority of CIC posts
Meanwhile, in a separate letter, former CIC Acharyulu urged President Kovind to ensure that only “right persons” were appointed to the CIC from diverse fields prescribed in the statute. He also urged that the Act be protected by him from the “attempts to dilute it by undesirable amendment and also from tactics like starving by non-appointment or filling it with majority of former bureaucrats.”
Acharyulu, who retired last month, said the Centre should have completed process of appointing the chief IC before the last incumbent, R.K. Mathur, retired last month. This would have ensured smooth functioning of the panel.
The former IC, who passed landmark orders during his tenure seeking release of information pertaining to Modi’s degree, demonetisation, return of black money and Reserve Bank of India’s action against major loan defaulters, said the Commission has eight vacancies now and this would lead to increase in the pendency of second appeals and complaints.
‘Appoint only non-bureaucrats to the panel, also as chief IC’
Acharyulu said the law lays down that 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.”
He said while over the last 13 years, the Commission has always been headed by a former bureaucrat, this time an eminent person from another field “may be selected”. And in case a bureaucrat is selected, he urged President Kovind to ensure that the person “has credentials of integrity, commitment towards transparency and has never supported or promoted any kind of secrecy in administration.”
Acharyulu said that with the three sitting commissioners all being former bureaucrats, “as a principle” the selection committee “should not consider the persons from this field for this time”. This, he noted, would also leave “no scope for bureaucratic majority or domination”.
The former IC called upon the president to “insulate the office of chief information commissioner or individual commissioner from direct or indirect pressures or interferences from any of its offices such as PMO or the DoPT”.
He also said the Centre should not introduce the RTI (Amendment) Bill, 2018 and shelve it permanently in the interest of transparency of administration and good governance.