An application has been filed in the Supreme Court seeking directions for the timely and transparent appointment of Chief and Information Commissioners of the Central Information Commission (CIC) and State Information Commissions (SICs) in order to secure the fundamental Right to Information and the effective implementation of the Right to Information Act, 2005.
On February 15, 2019, the Supreme Court had issued directions to the Centre and States for filling up of vacancies of Information Commissioners in Central and State Information Commissions.
The directions were issued by a bench comprising Justices A K Sikri and Abdul Nazeer in a petition filed by RTI activists Anjali Bhardwaj, Commodore Lokesh Batra and Amrit Johri
Stating that the Centre and States have failed to to comply with the directions stipulated in the February 15 order, the petitioners have filed the new application seeking directions.
Sections 12 to 17 of the RTI Act lay down the provisions related to the constitution of the CIC and the SICs, as well as the term of office, the conditions of service and the grounds of removal of the Chief Information Commissioner or the Information Commissioners. Every commission consists of a Chief Information Commissioner and up to 10 Information Commissioners, appointed by the President at the Central level and, the Governor of the State at the State level.
While the Selection Committee of the CIC consists of the Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition in the Legislative Assembly and a Union Cabinet Minister nominated by the Prime Minister, the Selection Committee of the SIC consists of the Chief Minister, the Leader of the Opposition in the Legislative Assembly and a Cabinet Minister nominated by the Chief Minister.
The Petition states that
"At present four posts of Information Commissioners are lying vacant in the CIC. As of September 4, 2019, nearly 32,500 appeals and complaints were pending before the commission. Out of the four vacancies, three arose out of routine and scheduled retirement of Information Commissioners upon the expiry of their five-year tenure or upon them attaining the age of 65 years. These vacancies arose more than 9 months ago. The final vacancy occurred when one of the existing Information Commissioners were appointed as the Chief of the CIC with effect from January 1, 2019."
The Order dated 15.02.2019 had held that the proper functioning of the Information Commissions with adequate number of commissioners was vital for the implementation of the RTI Act. It also held that the number of commissioners required should be determined on the basis of the workload. As the workload is rising exponentially, there is an urgent requirement for the Information Commissions to function at their full strength.
The failure of the Central Government, despite clear directives, has entailed the filing of this Petition seeking directions to the Union of India and the State Governments of Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh and Odisha to take immediate steps to fulfil the vacancies on the basis of the workload as well as place the information regarding the appointment process in the public domain as per the directions in the judgement of 15.02.2019.
The application further states that no details of the names of search committee, the names of the members of the Selection Committee (in terms of the nominated minister), details of shortlisting criteria or particulars of applicants, names of shortlisted applicants have been made available on the website of the Department of Personnel and Training.
Although information regarding these details were sought under RTI, it was denied, state the petitioners. The DoPT referred to Section 8(1)(i) of the RTI Act to deny information on Selection Committee. In this regard, the application states :
"It is pertinent to note that the exemption cited by the DOPT i.e. Section 8(1)(i) relates to the issue of disclosure of cabinet papers and is in no way related to the process of on-going appointments. In fact, the Central Information Commission in a decision dated July 2, 2019, on a complaint filed by petitioner no. 2 on denial of information on appointment of Information Commissioners, had observed that citing section 8(1)(i) of the RTI Act to deny such information was completely inappropriate and the Commission went on to admonish the Public Information Officer"
In this backdrop, the petitioners have sought to direct the respondents to place in the public domain details regarding the appointment process, particularly the names of members of 'Search Committee' and 'Selection Committee', details of applicants, criteria followed for short-listing, names of short listed candidates.
The Supreme Court had directed in its February 15 order that selection criteria adopted by search committee should be made public.
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