Transparency Suffers as Vacancies, Pending Cases in Information Panels at All-Time High

A study by rights group CHRI has also revealed a strong bias against hiring women to top posts in information commissions.

New Delhi: Though 25% of all information commissioner posts across the country are lying vacant, a major skew has been observed in favour of appointing Indian Administrative Service officers to these posts. Over 90% of the top posts in the commissions are being held by senior civil servants. On the other hand, women are grossly underrepresented in these bodies that are supposed to uphold the implementation of the Right to Information Act, 2005, as they hold just about 8.25% of the posts.

All these aspects have been brought to light by the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI) in its fourth study titled ‘Rapid Review 4.0’ on the ‘State of the Information Commissions and the Use of RTI Laws across India’.

Vacancies at an all-time high

The report, released as part of the commemoration of 25 years of CHRI, indicates that the number of vacancies has reached an all-time high and has been on the rise over the last four years. “More than 25% (109) of the 146 posts in the information commissions are lying vacant. In 2015, (when the last review was done) against the 142 posts created, 111 information commissioners (including the chief information commissioners) were working across the country. In July 2015, the vacancy figure was much lower at 20%,” programme coordinator at CHRI Venkatesh Nayak said, pointing to the difference.

According to the latest report, in March 2018, the total number of information commissioners serving across the country was 109 – down in even real terms from 111 in 2015. “In 2014, when we published the ‘Rapid Study Report 2.0,’ there were 120 ICs serving across the country. Yet fewer ICs are serving across the country in 2018 despite the creation of more posts,” Nayak said.

No one to lead at the top

Indicating a lack of political will to keep this transparency mechanism on its feet, the report has also pointed out that several of the posts of chief information commissioners who play a crucial role in heading and running the panels have been lying vacant. “There is no state chief information commissioner (SCIC) in Gujarat since mid-January 2018. Maharashtra SIC is headed by an acting SCIC since June 2017. There is also no information commission in Andhra Pradesh (after Telangana was carved out in June 2014),” it said.

The pendency of case reaching alarming proportions

With a shortage of information commissioners to dispose of the cases, the study pointed out that six of the biggest commissions in the country are now “saddled with 72% of the pending appeals and complaints across the country”. It noted that 47% of the serving chief information commissioners and ICs were posted in these states – Haryana (11), Karnataka, Punjab and Uttar Pradesh (nine each), the Central Information Commission, Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu (seven each). Of these, the pendency data of Tamil Nadu was not known.

Nayak, who along with Tahmina Laskar and John Mascrinaus of CHRI’s Access to Information Programme, and Neha Rani, a law student from Dehradun, conducted the study, said the data accessed from 19 information commissions also revealed that there were 1.93 lakh pending second appeal and complaint cases (as compared to 1.10 lakh cases that were pending across 14 ICs in 2015). So the pendency of cases has risen by over 75% in the last three years.

Moreover, the top five ICs in terms of size were found to be accounting for 77% of the overall pendency with Maharashtra having a pendency of 41,537 cases, Uttar Pradesh 40,248 cases, Karnataka (29,291), Central Information Commission (23,989) and Kerala (14,253 cases).

SC directive overlooked as bias toward bureaucrats persists

In the appointment of information commissioners, the report said the “bias towards bureaucrats in appointments has grown: 90% of the information commissions are headed by retired civil servants.” Apart from this, 43% of the information commissioners are from civil services background, it said, adding that “this is the trend despite the Supreme Court’s directive in 2013 to identify candidates in other fields of specialisation mentioned in the RTI Act for appointment”.

Further, the study noted that while as a qualification, the fields of expertise mentioned for the posts of information commissioners were law, science and technology, social service, management, journalism, mass media and administration and governance, “it appears that the governments’ trend of preferring retired civil servants to head information commissions has only strengthened over the years.”

The bureaucracy occupied almost all the top posts and a significant portion of the rest. Almost 90% of the information commissions (25 of 28) are headed by civil servants. “More than half (53.6%) of the chief information commissioners are retired IAS officers. In 2015, three-fourths of these posts were held by retired IAS officers. Currently, three chief information commissioners are retired IPS officers while one is from the state civil services and another is from an engineering background.”

Bias against women as information commissioners

On the other hand, the report indicates a bias against the appointment of women as information commissioners. “Only 8.25% of the serving SCICs and ICs are women. There are only nine women in all the information commissions put together. Three of them are retired civil servants,” the report said.

It further observed that “only one information commission, namely, that of Tamil Nadu, is headed by a woman SCIC. All other information commissions are currently headed by men.”

“There was no woman SCIC in 2015 anywhere across India when we published our Rapid Study 3.0,” the study admitted.

The study also referred to issues with commission websites – they are often either non-existent or non-functional, and annual reports are not published regularly. “The websites of SICs of Madhya Pradesh and Bihar cannot be detected on any Internet browser. The SICs of Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh have not published an annual report so far,” it said, adding that while Jharkhand and Kerala SICs have six pending annual reports each, Punjab has five and Andhra Pradesh four.

Less than 0.5% population has used RTI so far

On the use of RTI laws in India, the report said “less than 0.5% of the population seems to have used RTI since its operationalisation. Between 2005 (when the RTI Act was operationalised) and 2017, the report said ICs reported that 2.14 crore/21.4 million RTI applications were filed across the country”. However, it noted that the actual numbers may be higher and  “if data is published by all ICs, this figure may actually touch 3-3.5 crores/33-35 million (conservative estimate).”

While the most number of appeals were filed with the central government (57.43 lakh) and the states of Maharashtra (54.95 lakh) and Karnataka (20.73 lakh), despite having much lower levels of literacy, Chhattisgarh (6.02 lakh) logged more RTI applications than the 100% literate Kerala (5.73 lakhs).

However, RTI use was found to be minuscule in Manipur which recorded the lowest figure of 1,425 information requests between 2005-2017. The five states of Himachal Pradesh, Punjab, Sikkim, Nagaland and Tripura also reported a decline in the number of RTI applications received in recent years. “The reasons for the drop in numbers requires urgent probing,” Nayak said.