The proposal to create two bureaucratic panels to receive complaints against Central Information Commissioners will reduce the CIC to the level of a glorified clerk without any glory. It is a ridiculous proposal from the Government to make ‘officers’, who are expected to obey the directions of ICs and CIC, superior authorities and inquire into complaints against CICs.
This is yet another conspiracy to kill the institution, which was asking Government offices to disclose information and expose charges of corruption and other cases against its officers and employees. It’s totally against the RTI Act, and violative of the letter and spirit of our democratic Constitution which ensured independence to the Information Tribunal. It is bureaucracy’s desperate attempt to annex the transparency panel under their hierarchy.
In fact, the Government is already filling the Information Commission with favourite career bureaucrats, who served them with utmost loyalty. The independence therefore is killed at the origin, i.e., the appointment stage and now the Government wants to instill enough fear among the appointed commissioners so that they do not act independently or are compelled to pass a loyalty test in each of their orders.
The statutory status of Central Information Commissioners and the Chief Information Commissioner is much above the level of the Cabinet Secretary. The RTI Act gave CIC the power to direct and impose penalties on these officers if they fail to part with information. The ICs are actually at par with Election Commissioners, who in turn are deemed to be equivalent in protocol to Supreme Court judges. The CICs are appointed by the President on recommendations of a high-powered committee led by the PM, a cabinet minister and the leader of the opposition.
The Central Information Commission must function autonomously without being subjected to directions by any other authority under this Act (Section 12(4) or RTI Act). Therefore, the committees proposed by the Government are not authorised under this Act. Government cannot create any such authority in the absence of any enabling provision in the Act.
The removal of an Information Commissioner is possible only by the order of the President, the appointing authority, on proof of misbehaviour. On reference of President, the Supreme Court is authorized to conduct the inquiry. Only if the misbehaviour is proved in this inquiry, is the CIC liable to be removed. This high- level procedure is prescribed to insulate the office of CICs from frequent interference from the political executive.
The Government is a major player in implementing the RTI Act, the key part of it being the constitution of CIC. By delaying or not filling the vacancies and by selecting 99 pc of the Commissioners from the rank of former bureaucrats, on the sole merit of ‘loyalty’ to the Government, the Government is already wielding complete control over the body and minds of the CICs.
And still the senior bureaucrats in the Government, amusingly, are not satisfied. They are trying to dilute the institution, after adversely affecting other tribunals, by reducing the status of the CICs. Faced with resistance from the Commissioners, they attempted to get the RTI Act itself amended. As they failed, the bureaucrats have now come up with this fresh method of controlling and killing the CIC and to ultimately deny Right to Information.
I appreciate the CICs, for unitedly opposing this proposal. Till today the officials at the PMO were interfering with the functioning of the CIC, and if this new proposal gets through, every department will supervise the adjudication of second appeals and demand ‘judgments’ of their choice with the threat of inquiry.
It’s preposterous for the Government of India to come up with this kind of proposal when the General Election is going to take place in a matter of weeks. The election is after all a referendum on policies of this government in converting independent institutions into dependent branches and Commissioners as clerks ready to surrender their powers to these bosses.
It seems the Government wants to use the CIC, like other independent enforcement organisations, to threaten people who oppose the ruling party and the ruling thought. If only they appoint independent persons from different walks of life known for their integrity and transparency, there will be no complaints against CICs and no such committee of bureaucrats will be necessary.
People must understand the so-called commitment of this government towards transparency and RTI before exercising their right to vote.
This attempt is highly undemocratic, unconstitutional and smacks of authoritarianism. This must be opposed. I hope the President will advise his Government to be prudent and drop the proposal.
(The author is a former Central Information Commissioner and Professor of Law at Bennett University)