New Delhi: On a day when his article, titled “Collegium’s actions show that the NJAC which was struck down four years ago is back, with a vengeance”, appeared in a national daily, former Supreme Court judge, Justice (Retd) Madan B. Lokur raised concerns about large number of vacancies in courts and information commissions impacting their functioning and speedy disposal of cases.
Speaking at a public meeting on the implementation of the RTI Act, organised by Satark Nagrik Sangathan (SNS), which recently also released the ‘Report Card of Information Commissions in India’ and another report on their orders, Justice Lokur raised the issue of vacancies in the commissions impacting their functioning. He said while there are about 350 commissioners, “a lot many vacancies too exist”.
‘Vacancies in courts too’
Likewise, Justice Lokur said, “In the courts too, a large number of vacancies of judges exist.” He said there was a news item in a Hindi newspaper on Wednesday which spoke about a delay in the appointment of judges. “There was a report that there is a shortage of 420 judges,” he said, as he went on to crack a joke around the number.
On a serious note, he then stated that until the vacancies in information commissions are filled, appeals would remain pending. “This would end up depriving people of the benefits of the [RTI] Act, which can be used to get access to various services and information. The government should, therefore, fill these vacancies at the earliest,” he said.
The meet was organised by the SNS to discuss various challenges being faced by the RTI law due to the way the commissions are functioning. It saw several testimonies from citizens who had used the law to access information regarding their ration, pension or other entitlements and problems.
Justice Lokur said the testimonies highlighted the importance of access to information in people’s lives. He said when an ordinary person is at fault, the government files a case and puts them in jail. But when a government officer (wrongfully) stops someone’s pension or is at fault, similar action is usually lacking, the former Supreme Court judge said.
Justice Lokur then urged chief information commissioner Sudhir Bhargava to ensure that if complaints are received against officers, then some penalty under the law should be imposed so that they know wrongful acts will not go unpunished.
‘RTI amendments can cause much harm’
Justice Lokur also said the recent amendments to the RTI Act could cause much harm. He said the advertisements issued for the posts of commissioners in the CIC earlier this year were without any disclosure on the tenure, salary, benefits and terms of service. “And the amendment which came a few months ago is also silent on these aspects. The rules have also not been framed as yet,” he said.
Justice Lokur also wondered if people who applied for these posts would still be interested in them. “They would be in the dark about the terms of service, their tenure and salaries. So they may not be keen on applying for or taking up these jobs now,” he said.
He said till the rules are framed, the RTI law will continue to suffer.
‘Mobile app, live telecast for greater transparency’
Justice Lokur also suggested that some mobile apps should be developed to keep the nearly 70 crore people who own phones to see if they are eligible for benefits under any given scheme.
Justice Lokur also noted that the Supreme Court has decided to telecast live court proceedings and urged the CIC to consider the same possibility, at least in cases that involve public interest.
He also called for better case management to ensure speedy disposal. “In the information commissions, 2.70 lakh cases are pending and so there is an urgent need to dispose of them quickly. If the decisions come after, say five years, then much of the benefit would be lost.”
Responding to the demands of Justice Lokur and other participants, CIC Bhargava said, “It is our aim and objective that people should get access to their right to information and to ask questions.”
Bhargava also enumerated steps taken by the CIC for better results. He said directions have been issued that irrespective of an applicant turning up for a hearing or not, the order would be delivered keeping her interest at the top. He added, “However, each case would be decided on its merit.”
‘PIOs take advantage of mala fide intent clause’
On the issue of PIOs delaying information, Bhargava said there are many high courts and Supreme Court orders which have to be adhered to. In the case of penalties, he said there are numerous instances where they can be imposed. “But there are clear court orders that till the mala fide intention of an information officer is proved or established, no penalty should be imposed. Officers take advantage of this because only in very few cases we can prove that there was a mala fide intent,” he said.
As for case management, Bhargava said efforts have been made by the commission to ensure that 10-15 cases are disposed by every commissioner each day, and about 90% of cases are disposed within a day or two.
Anjali Bhardwaj of the SNS said people are facing a lot of problems in using the RTI Act. “Information Commissions are a friend of the citizens, they are institutions to provide information to the people. So the way we take to the streets to demand that appointments be made on time, so too we demand that the panels function properly and dispose the case at the earliest.”
And,” she asserted, “whenever there is a delay in delivery of information, a penalty should be imposed.”
Bhardwaj said that the SNS’s reports show that the penalty is being imposed only in 3% of the cases where applicable. “This is a matter of grave concern because officers will not fear the law,” she said.
She clarified RTI activists and users were “not in favour of penalties for the sake of penalties”. “We are interested in them because they are a way of ensuring proper implementation of the RTI law,” Bhardwaj said.