By Anjali Bhardwaj, Amrita Johri* Counterview
The Central Information Commission (CIC) is without a Chief Information Commissioner once again. Chief Information Commissioner of the CIC, Sudhir Bhargava, retired on January 11, 2020. It was a routine retirement and his date of retirement was known from the time Bhargava took over as Chief. Despite this, the government failed to appoint the next Chief Information Commissioner in a timely manner and has allowed the CIC to become headless.
At present 5 posts of information commissioners in the CIC, including that of the Chief, are vacant. As of January 15, 2020, the number of pending Right to Information (RTI) cases is nearly 34,500 up from 27,364 on January 1, 2019. Of the 5 vacancies in the CIC, 4 have persisted since November 2018.
In its February 2019 judgment on a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) regarding timely and transparent appointment of information commissioners, the Supreme Court had directed that vacancies in information commissions should be filled without delay by initiating the process of appointment one to two months prior to the date on which the vacancy is occurring to minimize the time lag between the occurrence of a vacancy and filling up of the vacancy.
The court had also held that “in case CIC does not have Chief Information Commissioner or other Commissioners with required strength, it may badly affect the functioning of the Act which may even amount to negating the very purpose for which this Act came into force” (judgment dated February 15, 2019 in WPC 436 of 2018, Anjali Bhardwaj & Ors Vs. Union of India & Ors).
On the directions of the Supreme Court even though an advertisement was issued inviting applications for 4 vacancies in January 2019, these have not been filled till date. In September 2019, a fresh petition was filed to the Supreme Court regarding the failure of the central government and some state governments to fill vacancies in information commissions as per the February 2019 directions of the Supreme Court.
Taking cognisance of the vacancies in the CIC, in its order dated 6.11.2019, the SC directed the Union of India to submit a status report (case reference M.A. No. 1979 of 2019). The government filed its report in a sealed cover and it was only after the next hearing that a copy of the report was provided to the petitioners.
The report shows that in response to the January 2019 advertisement of the 4 vacancies, 256 applications were received and when the search committee met in November 2019, they decided to re-issue the advertisement in light of the amendments made to the RTI Act in July 2019 regarding the tenure, salary and terms of service of information commissioners. The report notes that new advertisements for the 4 existing vacancies and another advertisement for the post of the chief were issued on December 12, 2019.
None of the vacancies in the Central Information Commission have been filled since May 2014 without people having to approach courts
In its order dated December 16, 2019, the Supreme Court directed the government to place in the public domain the names of the search committee and complete the process of appointments within 3 months.
In flagrant violation of the February 2019 judgment of the Supreme Court, information regarding the number and particulars of applications received, the names of members of the selection committee or the criteria adopted for shortlisting applications has not been placed in the public domain.
There has been a repeated and deliberate effort by the BJP government to undermine the institution of the CIC to weaken the RTI Act. This is borne out by the consistent failure of the government to fill vacancies in the commission unless the court intervenes and by the recent regressive amendments made to the RTI Act to undermine the independence of the CIC.
Since May 2014, every time the Chief Information Commissioner has retired, there has been a gap (of up to nine months) between the retirement of the incumbent and the appointment of the new chief and people have had to approach courts to compel the government to fill the vacancy.
The post of the Chief was vacant between August 2014 and April 2015 when Rajiv Mathur retired. The post again fell vacant for 1 month in December 2015 when Vijay Sharma retired and subsequently again in December 2018 when RK Mathur retired.
This is the fourth time the post of the chief has fallen vacant since the general elections of 2014. In fact, none of the vacancies in the CIC have been filled since May 2014 without people having to approach courts.
*With Satark Nagrik Sangathan
By Anjali Bhardwaj, Amrita Johri* Counterview