The President has approved the appointment of 4 information commissioners in the Central Information Commission (CIC) and one of the serving commissioners has been appointed as the Chief Information Commissioner, as per media reports.
The CIC had been functioning with only 3 commissioners and had been without a Chief since November 24, 2018. As per the RTI Act, the CIC is comprised of a Chief and upto 10 information commissioners. A PIL was filed in the Supreme Court in April 2018 regarding the issue of non-appointment of information commissioners in the Central Information Commission (and state information commissions) and the lack of transparency in appointments. In the last hearing of the case on December 13, 2018, the ASG had informed the Court that the selection of the Chief Information Commissioner had been finalised during the meeting of the Selection Committee held on December 11, 2018 and that the selection of four other information commissioners (for which vacancies were advertised) was underway.
In the hearing held on December 13, the Court was informed about the total lack of transparency in the process of appointment of commissioners in the CIC. The government denied information sought under the RTI Act about: the applications received for the posts of information commissioners; names of short-listed candidates, details of the search committee meetings etc. Taking serious note of the lack of transparency in the process of appointment, the Supreme Court in its order directed the Central government to:
“..put on the website the names of the Search Committee, the names of the candidates who have been shortlisted as well as the criteria which is followed for selection.”
However, from a perusal of the website of the Department of Personnel and Training (DOPT), it appears that in contravention of the SC order, no information about the search committee, names of short-listed candidates or the short-listing criteria have been uploaded. Further, no information about the meetings of the selection committee is available on the website. In fact, even the order regarding the selection of the Chief and 4 information commissioners is not available. The website was checked at 12 noon on December 31, 2018.
The rationale for seeking transparency in the process of appointment is to ensure that there is no arbitrariness in the appointment process and the most appropriate candidates from diverse backgrounds, as laid down in the RTI Act, are appointed as information commissioners. Further, disclosure of information about the short-listed candidates enables members of the public to inform the selection committee of any significant adverse information they may have about them in terms of their appropriateness as commissioners. If appointments to the CIC have been finalised without proper transparency, the entire purpose of the SC order directing disclosure of information to enable public scrutiny stands defeated.
The violation of the orders of the Supreme Court by the government means that appointments of commissioners to the transparency watchdog have been shrouded in complete secrecy. The lack of transparency is especially concerning given that the government had issued defective advertisements for inviting applications for the posts of information commissioners and the chief. The advertisements did not specify tenure and salaries of commissioners, even though these are defined in the RTI Act.
(The writer is an Indian social activist working on issues of transparency and accountability. She is co-convenor of the National Campaign for People's Right to Information and a founding member of Satark Nagrik Sangathan)