Information Commissioner Sridhar Acharyulu Questions "Arbitrary" Reconstitution Of Bench Hearing Complaint Relating To Political Parties [Read Letters]
Merely two months after an unprecedented press conference was held by four sitting Judges of the Supreme Court against the Chief Justice of India's constitution of benches, similar allegations are now being leveled against Chief Information Commissioner Mr R.K. Mathur.
In two letters addressed to Mr Mathur, Information Commissioner M. Sridhar Acharyulu has raised several questions on the reconstitution of a bench that was hearing complaints against six national political parties.
The parties — BJP, Congress, BSP, NCP, CPI and CPM — were brought under the ambit of the RTI Act by a full Bench of the CIC in 2013. It was now hearing a complaint alleging non-compliance of this order by the parties, in light of their refusal to disclose information on several occasions.
The first letter, dated 7 February, points out that initially, the complaint filed by Mr. R.K. Jain was being heard by a Bench comprising Mr Acharyulu, Mr. Sudhir Bhargav and Mr. Bimal Jhulka. This Bench had passed three interim orders on the complaint as well, after several rounds of hearings.
However, in August last year, Mr. Mathur dismantled this Bench, and reconstituted another Bench, comprising himself, Mrs. Manjula Prasher, Mr. D.P. Sinha and Mr. A. Bhattacharjee, to hear the complaint. This was allegedly done without communicating about the change as well as the reasons for the same to the previous Bench.
Mr. Acharyulu further points out that the reconstituted Bench comprises of Commissioners with lesser experience than the ones they replaced. He goes on to challenge the proposed Rule 15 of the draft RTI Rules, 2017, that empowers the Chief Information Commissioner to constitute benches and allocate subjects. This, he says, is ultra vires the parent Act.
He explains, "If Rule 15 becomes the ‘law’ then every Chief Information Commissioner either at the Centre or in States will be constantly under pressure to change the subjects of the individual Commissioners and dismantle the Benches arbitrarily. This will defeat the very purpose of the RTI Act."
Mr Acharyulu makes reference to the press conference held by the Supreme Court Judges as well, noting, "You may have noticed that the Chief Justice of India, who is the Master of the Roster, is also making such decisions in transparent manner, after the four members of the Collegium openly raised these issues. It is therefore important that all such decisions are taken at the Commission meeting with all the members present."
He then appeals for protection of the independence of the institution, writing, "I earnestly request you once again to let us all try to protect the independence of this institution and also the unhindered freedom of individual Central Information Commissioners in discharging their duties objectively and faithfully under RTI Act."
The second letter dated 21 February, which is also addressed to other Information Commissioners, raises questions on the independence of individual Information Commissioners, in light of such reconstitution of Bench without assigning any reasons.
It challenges Rule 15 again, asserting, " Distribution and redistribution of subjects cannot be left to any single individual authority but to be decided by Commission as such in a reasonable manner. There should be a system and guidelines so that it becomes impossible to bring external pressures to change the subject of particular Commissioner or remove one from a Bench."
The letter ends with questions raised on the ability of the CIC to fulfil its objectives, given its current practices, noting, "I sincerely request for transparent, independent and deliberated decisions on these critical issues to implement our own orders on political parties (and others too); in case we fail, we owe a responsibility to the people to explain the failure. If we cannot do this, cannot act independently, cannot protect the individual independence of information commissioners, we cannot still claim to be an institution of transparency and accountability. In such an event of a disaster, should this institution continue without any purpose, as a burden on the people’s exchequer, and wait for people to demand scrapping of? Please think over."Read the Letters Here