Individual decisions are randomly criticized and this does not give a picture of the overall trend of a Commissioner’s decisions. If we have a transparent process for selecting Commissioners and put continuous pressure on them for accountability, we will get much better results from our cherished Right to Information
There is considerable discontent amongst RTI users against the Information Commissions and Commissioners for not delivering the fruits of the RTI (Right to Information) Act. We have a law which directly empowers individual citizens and they are understandably concerned about getting its proper implementation. The political team mandated by the law—PM/CM, leader of the opposition and one minister—is not performing its function with diligence and is using the appointment of Information Commissioners as one more avenue for dispensing patronage. Perhaps they also lack the time required for such an exercise.
The political and bureaucratic establishment have been doing this for years in appointments for various commissions—and many other positions of high ranks—and is unable to understand this sudden outcry and anger of citizens against appointments of Information Commissioners.
Some activists have gone to courts and the Supreme Court’s order in the Namit Sharma case may institutionalize the Information Commissions as senior citizen’s clubs. It mandated that the Information Commissions must decide in benches of two, one of whom shall be a retired judge. This decision will have a huge negative impact on the Information Commissions, and lead to a further decline in their performance.
Presently, the order has been stayed. One positive outcome of this decision is its lament about the lack of a fair and transparent process for selection of Information Commissioners. There is a great need to introduce a transparent process for selecting Information Commissioners, who are expected to oversee transparency.
There should be an insistence on public exposure for those who are interested in becoming Information Commissioners. Many Information Commissioners have no understanding or interest in transparency, or the RTI Act. This is an affliction which is true for many people in power. I agree with the Supreme Court’s suggestion for a transparent process of selection made in the Namit Sharma case and hope that citizens would lend their voice for such a process. This would lead to a better environment for the RTI Act implementation.
The process I am suggesting is as follows:
A. The Information Commissions should set a target for disposals: I suggest 5000 per Commissioner per year. An attempt should be made to increase this target number (around 85% of the matters do not require any legal interpretations as per a study of four months of CIC decisions).
B. Every six months they should review their actual performance per Commissioner and forecast the expected receipts and disposals for the next two years, factoring the retirements. This information should be displayed on their websites. This forecast would show the requirements for new commissioners to be appointed by taking into account the expected retirements.
C. The government should advertise its intention to appoint a certain number of Information Commissioners depending on the need, four months in advance. Eminent people could apply or be nominated by others.
D. A search committee—perhaps—consisting of two members of Parliament, Chief Information Commissioner, one vice-chancellor, one Supreme Court judge and two RTI activists, could be formed to shortlist a panel which could be three times the number of Commissioners to be selected. These could be announced with the minutes of the meeting at which the shortlisting was done.
E. An interview should be held by the search committee in public view to give citizens and media the opportunity to hear the views and commitment to work of the candidates. Citizens could give their feedback and views to the search committee. After this the search committee could give its recommendation for two times the number of Commissioners to be appointed. Based on these inputs, the final decision to select the Commissioners could be taken by the committee as per the Act consisting of PM, LOP and one minister. (A similar process could be adopted for State Commissions with MLAs instead of MPs and high court judge instead of Supreme Court judge).
Citizens will benefit if they could get the Commissions to publish data on the performance of each Commissioner monthly, and also build public opinion to lower the average age of the Commissioners. Atleast half the Information Commissioners should be less than sixty years. There are many RTI activists who have gained considerable understanding of the nuances of the law, and have a natural empathy for transparency. Some of these should be appointed as Information Commissioners. Another useful function which civil society groups could perform is to analyze all the decisions of each Information Commissioner each month continuously in a transparent manner. This would build pressure on those who may be giving errant decisions.
Presently, individual decisions are randomly criticized and this does not give a picture of the overall trend of a Commissioner’s decisions. If we can get a transparent process for selecting Commissioners and put continuous pressure on them for accountability, we will get much better results from our cherished Right to Information. If this works well, it could be used as a model for selecting commissioners for various commissions. The commissions are designed as our checks and balances of democracy. Presently, most of them are not delivering their expected functions effectively.
(Shailesh Gandhi is a former Central Information Commissioner,)
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