How was India’s first Lokpal selected? Not your business to know, rules CIC

The Central Information Commission cites two SC judgments to rule that minutes of Lokpal Selection panel meetings cannot be made public under RTI. The applicant argues CIC’s premises is flawed

Justice Pinaki Chandra Ghose takes oath as India’s first Lokpal on March 27, 2019.
Justice Pinaki Chandra Ghose takes oath as India’s first Lokpal on March 27, 2019.

NH Web Desk

Do citizens have the right to know the first ombudsman or Lokpaland other members on the Lokpal panel were shortlisted and selected? Neither the government nor the Central Information Commission (CIC) believes citizens need to know this.

An RTI application was filed in November 2018 by social activist Anjali Bhardwaj seeking records related to the process of selection of the Chairperson and members of the Lokpal; the number of meetings held, minutes/proceedings of the meetings and details of who attended the meetings were some of the information sought.

The DoPT furnished details of who attended meetings and a summary of the decisions taken. But it refused to provide the minutes. It said, “the authorship of such documents which include 3-5 high level dignitaries does not vest in the Department of Personnel and Training and same have been shared as secret document. Thus, copies of the said documents cannot be provided by the undersigned CPIO.” An appeal was filed in March 2019 to the CIC.

Bhardwaj says the denial was in violation of the RTI Act.“Under the law, access to information can be rejected only on the grounds mentioned in Section 8 or Section 9 of the RTI Act. In this matter, the PIO did not invoke any of provisions mentioned in these sections. There is no provision in the RTI Act for denying information merely because the authorship does not vest in the public authority or because some document is shared as secret,” she says.

In the appeal to the CIC, it was highlighted that transparency in appointment to oversight bodies is a crucial safeguard against arbitrariness in appointments and to ensure their independent functioning.

The Supreme Court has given various directions to ensure transparency in the process of shortlisting and selection of functionaries of various independent statutory bodies like the Information Commissions and the Central Vigilance Commission.Unfortunately, in its order passed almost two years later, the CIC has upheld the denial of information.

The CIC relied on two Supreme Court decisions, in one of which it ruled no direction was necessary to place the names recommended by the Search Committee in the public domain. The SC had observed, “It is our considered view that no direction from the Court should be issued in this regard. Rather the matter should be left for a just determination by the Selection Committee as and when the meeting of the Committee is convened.”

“The reliance by the CIC on this observation of the SC appears to be misplaced as the issue of whether minutes of selection committee are accessible under the RTI Act was neither brought up before the court nor did the court discuss or rule on the issue,” says Bhardwaj.

The other judgment cited by the CIC relates to transparency in appointment of information commissioners. “As a result of the directions of the Supreme Court in this case, records regarding appointment including minutes of meetings of the Search and Selection Committee are placed in the public domain and are accessible under the RTI Act.

Therefore, it is not clear how the CIC has relied on this judgment to rule that minutes of selection committee for appointing Lokpal should not be accessible under the RTI Act,” Bhardwaj says.Under the Lokpal Act, the selection committee consists of the Prime Minister (Chairperson), Speaker of the House of the People, the Leader of Opposition in the Lok Sabha, the Chief Justice of India or a Judge of the Supreme Court nominated by CJI and an eminent jurist, as recommended by the Chairperson and other members.

Though the Act was passed in 2013, the government failed to make appointments for over five years. Finally, the selection committee headed by Prime Minister met in March 2018, after a contempt petition was filed to the Supreme Court.

“The Prime Minister, Speaker and the then CJI appointed Mukul Rohatgi, who had earlier served as Attorney General of India during the BJP regime, as the eminent jurist on the selection panel. The four-member selection committee, having a preponderance of representatives of the ruling party selected the Chair and members of the Lokpal in 2019.

“In such a scenario, disclosure of deliberations of the selection committee becomes even more crucial and serves great public interest. Transparency in the appointment process is essential to ensure public trust in the institution of the Lokpal,” says the activist.

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