An RTI demanding to know how complaints against Information Commissioners (ICs) are handled has provoked the government to propose the formation of a committee of bureaucrats under the cabinet secretary to probe them.
The Indian Express reported that the Centre’s proposal involved setting up of two committees—one, to receive and decide on complaints against the Central Information Commission (CIC), and another to probe complaints against Information Commissioners.
For the former, the committee is proposed to include the Cabinet Secretary, Secretary, Department of Personnel & Training (DoPT), and a retired chief information commission. For ICs, the committee will include Secretary (Coordination) in the Cabinet Secretariat, Secretary, DoPT, and a retired IC.
The proposal faced vehement opposition from the country’s highest appellate authority in RTI matters, as well from information activists, who perceive it as an attack on the autonomy of the transparency panel.
How did the panel respond?
The proposal sent to the CIC by the Department of Personnel & Training was unanimously rejected by the commissioners, believing it to be a move that could “skew checks and balances in
On March 27, the Centre’s proposal was discussed in a meeting of the Commission where all but one of the seven commissioners, including the chief, were present.
Chief Information Commissioner Sudhir Bhargava was urged to send a suitable and detailed reply to the government, News18 reported. “We will be sending a communication to the government soon,” Bhargava later told PTI. The note will “consider all legal, technical, and administrative aspects of the proposal,” a source informed Indian Express, refusing to
Although Bhargava didn’t elaborate on the Commission’s deliberations and the nature of response it intends to send the Centre, there was a general consensus that the panel needs complete autonomy.
What triggered the proposal?
The Supreme Court query seeking clarity on the procedure adopted to handle complaints against ICs, motivated the Centre’s proposal.
A former chief information commissioner, however, pointed out on the condition of anonymity, that the apex court had not made any observation or passed directions on the issue yet.
What’s the purpose of the CIC?
All Information Commissioners, including the CIC, are appointed by the President of India based on recommendations of a committee chaired by the Prime Minister, including the Leader of Opposition in the Lok Sabha, and a Union Cabinet Minister nominated by the PM.
The panel was constituted with the understanding that anyone who can be tried by law must not hold power over its IC’s. It needs to be completely independent, so as to fearlessly decide on a matter, opined the former Chief IC, who spoke under the condition of anonymity.
“How can a cabinet secretary or any other officer of the government, who under law can be investigated, summoned, penalised and questioned by the CIC, investigate it? The proposal also says that other secretaries will also be a part of it. This is a serious attack on the independence of the Commission and it must be opposed,” the former Chief IC was reported to have said.
How ICs are indicted under the existing system
According to Section 14 (1) of the Right to Information (RTI) Act, the Chief Information Commissioner or any Information Commissioner shall be removed from office “only by order of the President”, if proven guilty of misbehaviour or incapability, only “after the Supreme Court, on a reference made to it by the President, has, on inquiry, reported that the Chief Information Commissioner or any Information Commissioner, as the case may be, ought on such ground be removed”.
Section 14 (3) states the President may remove a Commissioner if he/she is adjudged an insolvent, has been convicted of an offence which involves moral turpitude, engages during his/her term of office in any paid employment outside, is unfit to continue in office by reason of infirmity of mind or body; or has acquired such financial or other interest as is likely to affect, prejudicially, his functions as the Chief IC or an IC.
This puts the constitutional authority of the Chief IC and subordinate IC’s at par with the Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) and other Election Commissioners (ECs). The same terms, conditions, and treatment are reserved for Supreme Court judges.
If there is no separate committee to probe complaints against the CEC and EC’s, the need to introduce such a mechanism when it comes to Information Commissioners is sketchy at best. Conversely, if the CIC comes within the government’s ambit, who’s to say the election panel will be spared the same
With the constitution of the Lokpal, furthermore, critics question the need for a separate panel when the newly-minted corruption watchdog is perfectly and fully empowered to handle any complaint against election or information commissioners.
Attack on the pillars of Indian democracy?
The BJP-led government, of late, has launched relentless attacks on democratic institutions, compromising their authority and independence with questionable decisions such as the removal of former CBI chief Alok Verma, prompting former RBI governor Urjit Patel’s resignation after friction with the central bank, threatening to invoke Section 7 of the RBI that limits its autonomy, and burying key reports like the NSSO’s employment survey.
However, this is not the first instance of political rallying against the authority of the information panel. The Congress in 2013, along with the CPI(M) and JD(U), rejected the CIC order that political parties are to be treated as “public authorities” and brought under the purview of the Right to Information Act. Then-ruling Centre had cited that bringing political parties under its ambit, will hamper the functioning of parliamentary democracy.
Why the RTI Act and its guardians matter
“Democracy requires an informed citizenry and transparency of information which are vital to its functioning and also to contain corruption and to hold governments and their instrumentalities accountable to the governed,” declares the preamble of the Right to Information (RTI) Act, 2005.
Inaugurating the 13th annual convention of the Central Information Commission last October, President Ram Nath Kovind advocated for transparency in governance, saying there is no such thing as “too much information” in a democracy. “Information overload is always preferable to information deficit,” Kovind said.
The government’s latest proposal is an “attempt by the political dispensation to influence the working of the ICs. This will take away the independence of an institution that has served the
Once implemented, Indians may as well bid goodbye to
In recent memory, the CIC has also been responsible for making public government records on the Polavaram Dam, Member of Parliament funds expenditure, the Employees’ Provident Fund Organisation, academic qualifications of people holding high public offices, including the prime minister, and most recently, the Reserve Bank of India’s records on big loan defaulters.
Notably, in February, the CIC had decided on a unique RTI application seeking an EVM from the Election Commission, saying that the machine was covered under the definition of “information” and can be demanded from the ECI. This stands to have huge political ramifications in the coming months.
Why CIC often courts criticism
That said, the promptness and performance records of the CIC leave more to be desired. The “Report Card on the Performance of Information Commissions in India” published in March 2018 found that eight state information commissions took a year to hear an appeal/complaint; vacancies aren’t timely filled, and despite a Supreme Court order ensuring that only
In an interview with
RTI activists, consequently, have a lukewarm opinion of the country’s authority on information, believing that the true essence of the Act is being mercilessly butchered by the way things work at the CIC and State Information Commissions.
The right to information, as President Kovind says, “is about nurturing the social contract of trust between the citizen and the state.” Despite being the most popular law of the land and a cogent weapon of the masses, India has appointed half-a-million public information officers under the RTI Act till date, to handle over six million estimated requests for information every year, suggesting
Prarthana Mitra is a Staff Writer at Qrius