By Anjali Bhardwaj, Amrita Johri*
The post of the Chief Information Commissioner of the Central Information Commission (CIC) has fallen vacant with the retirement of Bimal Julka with effect from August 27, 2020. This is the fifth time in the last six years that the Commission has been rendered headless. Four posts of information commissioners are also vacant in the CIC.
Currently more than 35,000 appeals and complaints are pending in the commission resulting in citizens having to wait for months, even years for their cases to be disposed, thereby frustrating peoples’ right to know.
Since May 2014, not a single commissioner of the CIC has been appointed without citizens having to approach courts. The failure of the government to make timely appointments of commissioners is a flagrant violation of the directions of the Supreme Court.
In its February 2019 judgment, 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”. To ensure timely appointments, the Court had directed that the process of selection should commence one or two months prior to the vacancy arising.
Further, the judgment notes, “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.” (Judgment in WPC 436 of 2018- Anjali Bhardwaj & Ors Vs. Union of India & Ors.)
Last year another petition was filed to the Supreme Court regarding 4 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. Though the petition in the Supreme Court was listed to be heard on 25.3.2020, the matter was not taken up due to the Covid-19 pandemic (MA 1979 of 2019 filed by Anjali Bhardwaj, Commodore (Retd) Lokesh Batra and Amrita Johri).
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 judgment 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.
The repeated failure to appoint the Chief and other commissioners of the CIC in a timely manner appears to be a deliberate attempt by the government to undermine the RTI Act and frustrate peoples’ ability to seek information to hold the government accountable.
*On behalf of Satark Nagrik Sangathan