While one might like to call this progress of sorts, it certainly is still pathetic that three-fourths of the SICs are still hibernating!
Satark Nagrik Sangathan, which undertook an assessment of the status of information commissions in India during the lock-down due to the COVID-19 pandemic, found that the SICs of Arunachal Pradesh, Haryana, Manipur, Punjab and Telangana and Rajasthan (as also the CIC) have made provision for taking up urgent matters or those related to life and liberty. The SIC of Rajasthan made a provision for hearing such matters, only as recently as on 4th May, nearly six weeks after the lock-down.
The SICs, which are not functioning, include those of Assam, Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Goa, Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh, Jharkhand, Karnataka, Kerala, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, Odisha, Sikkim, Tamil Nadu, Tripura, Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand and West Bengal.
While transparency is the spine of the Right to Information (RTI) Act, the study reveals that 11 information commissions out of 29, have not put up any information or notification about the functioning of their offices during lock-down. These are the commissions of Assam, Bihar, Himachal Pradesh, Kerala, Madhya Pradesh, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, Sikkim and Tripura.
The inaccessible websites included the information commissions of Bihar, Madhya Pradesh and Nagaland. Efforts to telephonically reach them were also not successful. The two information commissions of Jharkhand and Tripura were found to be completely defunct as the serving information commissioners, in both of these, were superannuated during the period of the lock-down. Also, the four information commissions of Bihar, Goa, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh are functioning without a SIC.
The report, compiled by Anjali Bhardwaj, Amrita Johri, Indrani Talukdar and Sagarika Ghatak, is based on an analysis of information accessed from the official websites of ICs. For commissions where relevant information was not available on the website, it was obtained telephonically. The assessment examines the functioning of ICs from the commencement of the lock-down on 25 March 2020 till 15 May 2020 (phase 3 of the lock-down ended on 17 May 2020). The website analysis was undertaken between 1st May and 11th May and phone calls were made to ICs between 14th May and 18 May 2020.
How Did the Information Commissions Inform the Public? Here’s How:
Central Information Commission: As per an order dated 25 March 2020, the office of the Central Information Commission was closed for a period of 21 days with effect from 25 March 2020 and all cases scheduled for hearing were deferred. Provision was made for hearing matters of urgency through audio conference. For such matters, people were asked to contact the deputy registrars of information commissioners, and their phone numbers were published on the website.
Andhra Pradesh: As per the notifications issued by the SIC, all hearings scheduled between 25th March to 3rd May were cancelled. The notification stated that from 4 May onwards, all information commissioners will take up only those cases where no reply or decision has been furnished to the applicant by the PIO/FAA or both and will dispose of matters based on available records.
The notification stated that cases where a decision/reply was furnished to the applicant, would be heard after the lock-down is removed.
Arunachal Pradesh: As per the notice dated 20 March 2020 all hearings from 23rd March to 5 April 2020 were suspended. The notice stated that urgent cases shall be heard as required. As per a press release dated 20 April 2020, provisions were made to hold hearings via video conference through an app.
The Commission suspended receipt of appeals/complaints in physical form and required these to be filed only via email. As per a notification dated 4 May 2020, all pending hearings were resumed through video/audio conferencing.
Bihar: Vide a notice dated 26 March 2020 all hearings scheduled till 14 April 2020 were adjourned. The notice stated that the SIC would not accept any new appeals/complaints during this period. Further, it clarified that the notice would stand automatically modified in the light of any follow-up orders/instructions issued by the National Disaster Management Authority, the ministry of home affairs, health ministry or the government of Bihar.
Chhattisgarh: As per the information on the homepage of the SIC, all hearings from 23rd March till 3rd May 2020 were suspended. The SIC resumed hearing matters from 4th May onwards.
Goa: As per the latest order dated 20 April 2020 on the website of the SIC, all hearings have been suspended until further notice.
Gujarat: All hearings during the period 20th March to 27 March 2020 were adjourned other than the hearing through video conference at Bhavnagar on 23rd March. No further information could be located on the website.
Haryana: All appeals/complaints scheduled for hearing up to 1 May 2020 were adjourned. Provision was made to bring to the notice of the SIC any matter of urgency or related to life and liberty by contacting the deputy registrar whose contact details were provided on the website. Further, matters listed before commissioners other than the Chief, were adjourned for varying periods of time. Three commissioners adjourned matters till the 15th May and one till 28th May two till 31st May and one till 1 July 2020.
Jharkhand: The initial notice on the SIC website postponed all hearings between 18 March 2020 and 17 May 2020. However, as the acting chief, who was the lone commissioner among the 19, finished his tenure on 8 May 2020, the notice was changed and now states that all scheduled hearings of appeals and complaints shall remain adjourned till the appointment of the chief or an information commissioner.
Karnataka: As per the notifications on the SIC website, all hearings scheduled till 16 May 2020 were postponed.
Madhya Pradesh: An order of the SIC dated 1 May 2020 was accessed off line, since the commission’s website is non-functional. It laid down the procedure for staggered working of the staff of the commission but contained no details regarding hearing and disposal of appeals/complaints by the SIC.
Maharashtra: A document named ‘Sunavani Cancel’ available under the link ‘Important Letters’ on the SIC website states that hearings scheduled for 17th March and 18 March 2020 were cancelled due to the Covid-19 virus. In addition, notices regarding suspension of hearings are available on the link to the cause lists for the Aurangabad and Nasik benches. The notice for the Aurangabad bench states that hearings for 23rd, 24th and 26th were adjourned and the next date of hearing would be informed in due course. The notice for the Nasik bench states that hearings scheduled for 20 April 2020 stand postponed. No further information/notification could be located on the website.
Manipur: As per the notification dated 16 March 2020, all proceedings regarding appeals/complaints till 31st March were adjourned. Provision was made to look into matters related to life or liberty as per the proviso to section 7(1). As per the notification dated 4 May 2020, the SIC will resume all hearings from 18 May 2020 through audio/video conferencing.
Odisha: As per the notices available on the SIC website, all matters posted for hearings till 16 May 2020 were adjourned.
Punjab: As per information on the homepage of the SIC, while appeals/complaints pending in the commission stand adjourned until the duration of the ongoing curfew/lock-down, provision has been made to hear matters of utmost urgency pertaining to ‘Life and Liberty’ by a bench comprising the Chief and an information commissioner.
Rajasthan: As per notifications all matters posted for hearings between 18th March and 3rd May were adjourned. Subsequently, an order dated 4 May 2020 stated that the SIC would hear only extremely urgent matters. The order also states that if after filing an RTI application under the life and liberty clause and the first appeal, information is not provided or the applicant is dissatisfied, she/he can send the second appeal and all the relevant documents to SIC on a designated mobile number. If the appeal is deemed to be urgent, the SIC will proceed in the matter. No such mechanism for urgent matters was available prior to 4 May 2020.
Tamil Nadu: As per the notice dated 23 March 2020 all cases posted for enquiry up to 31 March 2020 were adjourned. No further information could be located on the website.
Telangana: As per information on the homepage of the SIC, while all hearings posted till 30th April were postponed due to the lock-down, in case of urgency, the deputy secretary/secretary (law) could be contacted on the numbers listed. Subsequently, the commission decided to hear cases telephonically dispensing with personal appearance of parties.
Uttar Pradesh: As per orders on the website, all hearings scheduled between 18 March2020 and 17 May 2020 stand adjourned.
Uttarakhand: As per the notifications on the website, all hearings of second appeals and complaints from 19 March 2020 onwards stand adjourned until further notice. Notification dated 4 May 2020 states that while the SIC has re-opened, it will carry out only administrative work and all hearings will remain adjourned until further notice.
West Bengal: Initially, as per the notice available on the website, the commission decided that between 16 March and 31 March 2020 only urgent cases which have already been scheduled for this period would be heard and all others would be rescheduled. However from 23 March onwards, the commission decided that the office of the SIC would be closed and all hearings would be rescheduled. The notification did not make any provision for urgent matters or those related to life and liberty. The latest order states that in view of the extension of the nation-wide lock-down for two weeks beyond 3 May 020, the office of the West Bengal information commission will resume its functions after lifting of the restrictive orders, as decided by the full bench of the commission.
(Vinita Deshmukh is consulting editor of Moneylife, an RTI activist and convener of the Pune Metro Jagruti Abhiyaan. She is the recipient of prestigious awards like the Statesman Award for Rural Reporting which she won twice in 1998 and 2005 and the Chameli Devi Jain award for outstanding media person for her investigation series on Dow Chemicals. She co-authored the book “To The Last Bullet - The Inspiring Story of A Braveheart - Ashok Kamte” with Vinita Kamte and is the author of “The Mighty Fall”