New Delhi: There is a “total arbitrariness in shortlisting candidates” while appointing the chief information commissioner and information commissioners of the Central Information Commission, a citizens’ rights group has charged. This is based on their reading of files related to the appointments that have been uploaded by the Department of Personnel and Training. The Supreme Court, in its judgment in February 2019, had directed public disclosure of records regarding appointments of information commissioners.
Reacting to the contents of the files and the dissent note that had been sent with regard to the appointments by Congress leader Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury – who was a member of the search committee on account of his being the leader of the single largest group in the opposition – in October this year, Satark Nagrik Sangathan members Anjali Bhardwaj and Amrita Johri charged that the panel “acted beyond its mandate and included names of people in the shortlist who had not even applied”.
They also said “no objective and rational criteria for shortlisting of candidates was adopted by the Search Committee, despite clear directions of the Supreme Court” and that it was unfortunate that despite a large backlog of cases in the CIC the selection committee headed by the prime minister has failed to fill all vacant posts. “Three posts still remain vacant in the CIC even though 38,000 cases are pending,” they pointed out.
The Sangathan, in a detailed analysis of the files uploaded by the DoPT in connection with the appointments made in November 2020 of the CIC chief and three information commissioners and Chowdhury’s dissent note, cited five major inconsistencies or flaws with the appointment process.
Search committee acted beyond its mandate
The organisation accused the search committee of not adhering to the rules in the appointment of the commissioners. It said the process to be followed is that particulars of interested persons are first invited through advertisements; they are tabulated by the DoPT and sent to a search committee; shortlisted names are sent to the selection committee, headed by the prime minister; and candidates recommended by the selection committee are appointed by the president.
Stating that the search committee was constituted by the prime minister – despite there being no provision for it in the RTI Act, 2005 – “for shortlisting of candidates for the post of Information Commissioners in the Central Information Commission”, the Sangathan said its role was limited to creating a shortlist from among the persons who applied in response to the advertisement. It said 355 applications were received in response to the DoPT advertisement for six posts of information commissioners in the CIC.
However, the Sangathan charged that from the minutes it was clear that “instead of restricting itself to short listing from among those who had applied, the Search Committee also considered names of other persons as suggested by members of the committee. Not only is this beyond the explicit mandate for which the search committee was constituted, it vitiates the whole appointment process by allowing it to be manipulated arbitrarily and opens it up to external influence.”
Uday Mahurkar shortlisted, selected despite not even applying for post
While the minutes do not state what criteria was used to consider names from outside the list of applicants and also remains silent on who all were considered, the Sangathan said the search committee shortlisted seven names for the six vacancies.
“One of the shortlisted persons, Mr. Uday Mahurkar, had not even applied in response to the advertisement and it is not clear on what basis the committee determined his interest for the post,” the Sangathan said, adding that he was also selected as an information commissioner despite the dissent note by Chowdhury.
No objective criteria for shortlisting candidates
The Sangathan also charged that the directions of the Supreme Court that it would be “appropriate for the Search Committee to make the criteria for shortlisting the candidates, public, so that it is ensured that shortlisting is done on the basis of objective and rational criteria” were violated during the appointment process.
It said the minutes did not show any such objective or rational criteria being followed during the deliberations. The minutes merely state, “After taking into consideration the overall experience profile as well as suitability for the post, the Search Committee shortlisted the following panel (in alphabetical order) for consideration of the Committee constituted under Section 12(3) of the RTI Act for the posts of Information Commissioner in Central Information Commission”.
No action on dissent note
The Sangathan also observed that Chowdhury, being a member of the search committee as he was leader of the largest opposition group, had submitted a six-page dissent note on October 24, 2020 regarding the search and selection process adopted for the appointment of the chief and three information commissioners before the appointments to the Commission were made.
However, from the manner in which the appointments followed, it is clear that his objections were not taken into account. The selection panel was headed by prime minister as its chairperson and also comprised home minister Amit Shah.
Vacancies allowed to persist in CIC
While there were six vacancies to be filled, only four were filled up after the appointment process. The Sangathan said despite the selection committee being aware of the number of vacancies in the CIC, it failed to fill all vacant spots. “At the time of deliberation of these appointments, the post of the Chief and five posts of information commissioners were vacant in the CIC. As the committee chose an incumbent commissioner for the post of Chief, the vacancies rose to six. Yet the committee only recommended three names for the post of information commissioners leading to 50% of the vacancies remaining unfilled, despite the huge backlog of appeals and complaints in the CIC.”
It said as on December 30, 2020 over 38,000 appeals and complaints remained pending in the CIC and it took on average around two years for a matter to come up for hearing.
Further, it reminded how the Supreme Court had in its December 2019 order directed that the process of appointment of information commissioners should be completed within three months.
Timely disclosure of information not happening
The Sangathan also pointed out that before the DoPT recently made the files pertaining to appointments public on its website, it had “persistently denied access to information about the composition of the search committee and the name of the Minister nominated by the PM to be a member of the selection panel, despite people seeking this information under the RTI Act.”
In fact, it said, “the correspondence from the PMO recording the PM’s approval for initiating the appointment process, the setting up of the search committee and deciding its composition and the nomination of the cabinet minister to the selection panel is marked ‘confidential’!”
This, the Sangathan said, was in gross violation of the December 2019 order of the Supreme Court in which it had had specifically directed that the names of the members of the Search Committee should be put up on the DOPT website.