Dec. 26 Hundreds of activists on Wednesday protested outside the Central Information Commission (CIC) Bhawan in Munirka, New Delhi, against the non-appointment of information commissioners against the failure of the Government of India to fill up eight vacant posts of information commissioners, including that of the Chief Information Commissioner, out of the total strenght of 11. The previous Chief Information Commissioner, RK Mathur, retired on November 24, 2018 and since then the CIC is without a chief.
At the protest, participants highlighted how the vacancies are hindering peoples’ fundamental right to information (RTI) as guaranteed under the RTI Act, 2005, as fewer information commissioners hearing cases leads to increased pendency, resulting in people having to wait for a long time for their appeals and complaints to be heard by the CIC. Currently nearly 27,000 appeals and complaints are pending before the commission, and some of these were filed more than two years ago.
Under the RTI Act, Information Commissions are the final appellate authority and are entrusted with the crucial task of deciding appeals and complaints of persons who have been unable to secure information in accordance with the RTI Act or are aggrieved by violations of the Act. The CIC has been functioning at a reduced strength since December 31, 2016 when the first vacancy occurred.
Raising banners of #SaveRTI #SaveDemocracy, protesters highlighted poor track record of the current government on issues of transparency and accountability. The government has not filled a single vacancy in the commission, unless when people petitioned in court, leading to court intervening.
Further, the government has also proposed amendments to weaken the independence of information commissions. The RTI Act Amendment Bill aims to give the Central government the power to decide the salary and tenure of commissioners across India, thereby attempting to make them pliant.
The Supreme Court is also seized of the matter of vacancies in information commissions. In April 2018, a PIL was filed in the Supreme Court highlighting the non-appointment of information commissioners and also the lack of transparency in the process of appointments of commissioners.
During the last hearing on December 13, 2018, the apex court took cognisance of the submission of the Central government that five vacancies, including that of the Chief Information Commissioner, had been advertised and the appointment process was underway.
However, the apex court also took note of the defective advertisement issued by the Central government which did not specify the salary and tenure of the post of commissioners, even though these are defined in the RTI Act. It stated that it would examine this issue in detail at the next hearing.
Further, in a significant boost for transparency in the process of appointments, the Supreme Court directed the Central government to put on the website the names of the Search Committee members, the names of the candidates who have been shortlisted as well as the criteria followed for the selection.
It also directed the government to advertise the three other vacancies which have not been advertised till date (click HERE for the apex court order).
Meanwhile, the government has failed to operationalise the Lokpal Act and the Whistleblowers Protection Act and has also not brought the Grievance Redress Bill to Parliament.
The Central government failure comes amidst reports of another RTI activist being allegedly killed in Banka, Bihar, taking the toll of reported killings of RTI users to 15 in the current year (2018). Credit