5 RTI decisions explain why govt Is against RTI and information commissions
Central Information Commission’s direction to disclose details about the Prime Minister’s educational qualification and RTI information on NPAs and black money had embarrassed the government.
It is no longer a secret that the union government has shown little or no interest in strengthening the Right to Information Act and Information Commissions. Appointment of Commissioners are routinely delayed and made reluctantly after intervention by the courts. Information is routinely denied to RTI applications and in 2019 the union government famously diluted the RTI Act.
Three days after the Supreme Court’s attention was drawn on 31 October to the CIC being headless since 3 October and four Information Commissioners retiring on 6 November, the government hurriedly called a meeting of the selection committee on 3 November and appointed Heeralal Samariya, who was appointed an IC in 2020, as the Chief Information Commissioner and two more Information Commissioners, Vinod Kumar Tiwari and Anandi Ramalingam. All three were sworn in on 5 November and the fact that former IAS officer Mr Samariya comes from a Dalit community in Rajasthan was pointedly highlighted by the mainstream media.
Ms. Ramalingam had been holding the post of Chairman and Managing Director of Bharat Electronics Ltd. (MoD, GOI). She holds a BE(Hons) in Electronics and Communication Engineering. Mr. Tiwari, a 1986 batch Indian Forest Service Officer had held the post of Head of Force-cum-Principal Chief Conservator of Forests as Head of Himachal Pradesh Forest Department, Shimla.
Under the RTI Act Information Commissions are to have up to 10 Information Commissioners besides a Chief Information Commissioner. At the Central Information Commission, all appeals related to denial of information by the President of India, the Prime Minister etc. are dealt with the chief. But since 2015 the union government has routinely delayed appointment of information commissioners and have allowed vacancies to mount along with pending appeals.
At the hearing in October-end a three-judge Bench headed by the Chief Justice of India D.Y. Chandrachud gave the Centre three weeks to collate data from the states on the sanctioned strength of the CIC and SICs besides existing and anticipated vacancies till March 31, 2024 besides the number of pending cases. The petition filed by activist Anjali Bhardwaj, Commodore Lokesh Batra (Retd) and Amrita Johri would be listed again for hearing after three weeks.
Arguing for the petitioners, lawyer-activist Prashant Bhushan argued that continuing vacancies had paralysed information commissions and made RTI Act almost redundant, despite court judgments in 2018-19 directing the government to fill up the vacancies.
He noted that the Jharkhand SIC had been defunct since May 2020. Likewise, the Tripura and Telangana SICs had been rendered defunct since July 2021 and February 2023, respectively. Other SICs, including in Maharashtra, Karnataka, Bihar, Odisha and West Bengal, were also crippled by vacancies and a huge backlog, he added.
Speaking in the Rajya Sabha on 25 July 2019, Jairam Ramesh, who was closely associated with drafting of the RTI Act, had claimed that the government seemed determined to bury the RTI Act because it had repeatedly been embarrassed either by directions by the CIC or by information secured by RTI applications.
Jairam Ramesh had then claimed that the Central Information Commission had directed the PMO to declare the educational qualification of the Prime Minister, which the government had contested and taken to the court. RTI information had also proved that the Prime Minister had exaggerated figures of bogus ration cards.
Similarly, to the embarrassment of the government, RTI information had revealed that the central board of the RBI had met barely four hours before the PM’s broadcast to the nation on 8 November 2016 announcing demonetisation of 87 per cent of the currency in circulation. It had also revealed that the RBI had objected to the plan.
It was again the RTI which had revealed to the embarrassment of the government that RBI governor Raghuram Rajan had submitted to the government a list of wilful defaulters who were pushing up Non Performing Assets (NPAs) in public sector banks.
Finally, RTI information had also revealed the reality of black money lying abroad and which the present government had promised to bring back.
The attempts to dilute the RTI Act and reduce the Information Commission to a department of the government and not the autonomous and independent institution envisaged by the Act, therefore, were neither innocent nor innocuous, Ramesh had said.