At a petition heard last week by the Supreme Court (SC) regarding the delay in the appointment of information commissioners under the Right to Information (RTI) Act, the judges expressed displeasure at the failure of the states to fill vacancies and warned of strict action against non-compliance with its directions. The states have been asked to fill the vacancies in the next three to four weeks.
The petitioners, Anjali Bharadwaj, Amrita Johri and Commodore Lokesh Batra (retd) who have been doggedly pursuing this contentious issue through the highest judiciary since 2018, reiterated to the SC, "The flagrant, wilful and deliberate disobedience by the States of Maharashtra, Karnataka, Odisha, Telangana, Nagaland and West Bengal, despite clear directions issued to each state in the judgement dated 15 February, 2O19 regarding the timely and transparent appointment of information commissioners to the respective state information commissions.’’
Maharashtra has the dubious distinction of 75,000 appeals or complaints pending before the State Information Commission as of 31 May 2021. The SC order of 18 August 2021 has asked the state to fill up the vacancies within three weeks or the chief secretary would be summoned to the Court. This is followed by the Karnataka state information commission which has 30,000 second appeals and complaints pending with it.
Following were the orders given to the state governments for quick filling up of vacancies of information commissioners.
In its February 2019 judgement, SC had directed the state of Maharashtra to ensure that the information commission functions at full strength (1 chief and 10 information commissioners) given the large backlog of appeals and complaints. However, as of date, the commission is functioning with only four commissioners even though the pendency as of 31 May 2021 stood at more than 75,000 appeals and complaints. The bench pulled up the state of Maharashtra for not filling the vacancies of the state information commission and warned that the chief secretary will be summoned if the state fails to fill the vacancies within three weeks.
In its 2019 judgement, given the large pendency, SC had directed that the state information commission (SIC) should function at full strength for which the government must sanction all posts which the state government did. But, in the hearing, it was pointed out that currently, three posts are vacant even though there is a backlog of more than 30,000 appeals and complaints in the commission. The SC directed the state to fill vacancies and file a status report.
In the 2019 judgement, SC had directed the state of Odisha to sanction three additional posts so that the commission can function with one chief and six commissioners, given the backlog of cases. In the hearing, it emerged that the state had sanctioned only two additional posts and currently the commission was functioning with only four commissioners. One post had fallen vacant in November 2020 and was yet to be filled up while the chief retired recently on the 15th August. The SC directed the government to file a status report.
During the hearing, it was pointed out that the SIC of Telangana has been functioning without a chief for one year, although the RTI Act envisages a crucial role for the chief. The general superintendence, direction and management of the affairs of the SIC vests in the chief. SC expressed disappointment at the state of affairs and directed that the appointment should be made before the date of the next hearing.
It was highlighted that in the case of the SIC of Nagaland the previous chief retired in January 2020 and since then no new chief has been appointed. As a result, for 19 months, the commission has been headless. The state was directed to fill the vacancy and file a status report.
In its February 2019 judgement, SC directed the government of West Bengal to create three posts of commissioners in addition to the sanctioned strength of three (one chief and two information commissioners).
During the hearing, it was pointed out that currently, the commission is functioning with only two commissioners one chief and one commissioner) though nearly 10,000 appeals/complaints are pending before it. The SC pulled up the state government for failing to file an affidavit before the hearing and for not filling the vacancies.
Whereas the government of Jharkhand was not a respondent in the case, it was pointed out that the condition regarding the information commission is alarming as it has been effectively rendered defunct since May 2020, when the lone information commissioner retired.
Since then, no information commissioner or chief has been appointed and the commission has been non-functional with people seeking information from public authorities under the jurisdiction of the Jharkhand SIC having no recourse to the independent appellate mechanism prescribed under the RTI Act. The SC expressed anguish at the current state of affairs and directed the state to fill vacancies and also file a report.
It may be recalled that in its earlier order of 2019, SC had observed that the objective of the RTI Act is to ensure time-bound access to information and, therefore, commissions should dispose of appeals and complaints on time. And that, to achieve this, all information commissions should have an adequate number of commissioners based on the workload.
It opined that where there are large backlogs of appeals and complaints, the commissions should function at full strength, i.e., one chief and 10 information commissioners. The judgement emphasised that if commissions do not function with the adequate number of commissioners, it would negate the very purpose of enacting the RTI Act.
(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”.