Following the retirement of Chief Information Commissioner Sudhir Bhargava in January 11, the Central Information Commission (CIC) has become headless again—as the government has failed in appointing a new chief information commissioner.
According to reports, as of now, five posts of information commissioners in the CIC, including that of the chief, are vacant while the number of pending cases continues to mount—reported to be around 34,500.
According to a press release issued in this regard by Satark Nagrik Sangathan, of the five vacancies in the CIC, four have persisted since November 2018.
The release read: “It was a routine retirement and his date of retirement was known from the time Mr. 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.”
“In its February 2019 judgment on a 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’,” read the release..
It further added that an advertisement was issued inviting applications for four vacancies in January 2019, but these have not been filled yet. As a result, in September 2019, a fresh petition was filed in the Supreme Court regarding the failure of the central government and some state governments to fill these vacancies.
“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 12.12.2019” said the release.
The Supreme Court has directed the government to place in the public domain the names of the search committee and complete the process of appointments within three months. In violation of the February 2019 judgment of the SC, 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.
The Satark Nagrik Sangathan alleged, “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 upto 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 Mr. Rajiv Mathur retired. The post again fell vacant for 1 month in December 2015 when Mr. Vijay Sharma retired and subsequently again in December 2018 when Mr. R K 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,” it added.