With the retirement of Bimal Julka as Chief Information Commissioner on August 27, the Central Information Commission has been rendered without a head for the fifth time in six years. Not only that, four posts of information commissioners are currently vacant in the CIC, which has more than 35,000 appeals and complaints pending, forcing citizens to wait for months or even years for their cases to be heard.
Since May 2014, every appointment to the CIC has been made only after activists moved the Courts to demand explanations from the government about the vacancies. Only on two occasions in the past have Chief Information Commissioners been appointed to ensure that the office did not remain vacant for even a day, according to a report. Both occurred during the tenure of the UPA Government which piloted the law through Parliament.
In 2014-15, during the first year of NDA-2, the CIC functioned without a chief IC for more than nine months. The government’s failure to make timely appointments of commissioners is a flagrant violation of the directions of the Supreme Court. Earlier in February 2019, the apex court had categorically stated that if the CIC does not have a Chief Information Commissioner or required strength of commissioners, it adversely affects the functioning of the RTI Act and “may even amount to negating the very purpose for which this Act came into force”.
The court had further directed that the process of selection should commence one or two months prior to the vacancy arising. In the judgment in the Anjali Bhardwaj & Ors Vs. Union of India & Ors. case in 2018, the court had said, “The petitioners are right in their submissions that there have been undue delays in filling up of these vacancies. We expect that the vacancies shall be filled up, in future, well in time.”
The absence of the chief IC can seriously hamper the day-to-day working of Information Commissions, a report in The Leaflet said. The RTI Act vests the responsibility of general superintendence, direction and management of their affairs in the respective Chief Information Commissioners.
“While other Information Commissioners may continue to hear cases, administrative decision making gets adversely affected by the absence of the Chief Information Commissioner. The Bihar Information Commission has reportedly not been able to renew service agreements with its contractual employees because it has remained headless for several months. So, they either do not get paid while continuing to work for that Commission, or they may elect to stop working altogether for not being paid their salaries,” the report added.
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Last year another petition was filed to the Supreme Court regarding four vacancies in the CIC. In its order in December 2019, the SC directed the government to fill all vacancies within a period of 3 months. Even that order has not been complied with till date. The government filled only one post by appointing Dr. Amita Pandove. However, in March 2020, the tally went up to four again when another post became vacant with existing commissioner, Bimal Julka, was appointed as the Chief.
Further, in its December 2019 order, the Supreme Court directed the government to ensure transparency in the process of appointment by disclosing the names of the members of the Search Committee and complying with the earlier directions regarding timely and transparency appointments to the CIC given in its February 15, 2019 judgment. “The judgement inter-alia required disclosure of the agenda and minutes of search and selection committee meetings, criteria adopted by the search committee for shortlisting candidates, the advertisement issued for the vacancies, the list of applicants, notification of appointments, file notings and correspondence related to appointments. It is pertinent to note that other than the circulars dated July 9, 2020 inviting applications for the post of the Chief and information commissioners, no other details have been placed in the public domain,” according to a statement released by the Satark Nagarik Sangathan.
Information Commissions are not only institutions that ensure the protection and fulfilment of a citizen’s fundamental right to access information, before the constitutional courts are approached for redressal, but also serve to deepen democracy and ensure the accountability of officers. However, the repeated failure of the NDA government to appoint the Chief and other commissioners in the CIC in a timely manner appears to be “a deliberate attempt by the government to undermine the RTI Act”, the statement noted.