The Central Information Commission (CIC) is not only working at half its strength of 12 posts including the office of chief information commissioner and 11 for information commissioners but has also been headless for the past two months with pendency of appeals/complaints crossing 36,500 cases despite a Supreme Court order of December 2019 fixing a three-month deadline for the Centre to fill all vacancies at CIC.
Pointing to this state of affairs prevailing at the apex body meant to dispense the prized right to information (RTI) of citizens, an application has been moved by three public-spirited persons – Anjali Bhardwaj, Lokesh K Batra and Amrita Johri– before the Supreme Court in a pending public interest litigation (PIL) filed by them. The application has demanded an urgent hearing on the matter since the posts of five information commissioners (ICs) and the chief IC at the constitutional body are lying vacant.
Almost 10 months have gone by since the department of personnel and training (DoPT) on December 12, 2019 issued an advertisement calling applications for posts of four ICs. Four days later, the Supreme Court took up the pending PIL filed by the three social activists and ordered that all vacancies should be filled up in three months. The matter was to come up on March 25, 2020 but due to the Covid-19 situation, the matter has not got a subsequent hearing.
The application pointed out that the vacancy has remained constant at four since November last. As regards the post of Chief IC remaining headless, it was submitted that with the retirement of Bimal Julka, this post is lying vacant since August 27, 2020. This is the fifth time that the CIC is functioning without a chief in the past six years.
But the Centre has denied that it has failed to fill up the vacancies at the CIC. In April 2020, Centre filed an affidavit in response to the three-month deadline set by the court to fill all vacancies at CIC. It claimed that ‘the process of appointment in response of Information Commissioners in Central Information Commission has been completed within three months as directed by the Court in its Order dated December 16, 2019.”
Advocate Prashant Bhushan who has filed the application on behalf of the petitioners said, “This assertion (by the Centre) is patently false and misleading as the respondent was to fill all the vacancies which were advertised on December 12, 2019 and not merely appoint one IC and a chief IC on March 6 this year.”
The application stated that the action of the Centre falls foul of a judgment passed by the Supreme Court on February 15, 2019 where there is a specific direction to begin the process of filling up vacancies even before they arise.
The SC decision said, “It would be apposite that the process for filling up of a particular vacancy is initiated 1 to 2 months before the date on which the vacancy is likely to occur so that there is not much time lag between the occurrence of vacancy and filling up of the said vacancy.”
On July 9, 2020, DoPT issued fresh advertisement for appointment of six ICs and another advertisement followed for the post of chief IC falling vacant by August end this year.
The application states that the pendency of appeals or complaints with the CIC has risen to over 36,600.
The situation is equally worse in some states. The Maharashtra state information commission (SIC) has a pendency of 59,312 cases (as on July 31, 2020), the highest pendency among all states. The February 2019 SC judgment required Maharashtra to maintain complete strength of one SIC chief and 10 ICs. Sadly, the SIC is functioning with only 5 ICs which explains the backlog, the application said.
Uttar Pradesh comes second after Maharashtra on the pendency scale. The SIC at UP is functioning without a chief since February 2020 while the backlog of cases at UP’s SIC has mounted to 47,923 as on July 31, 2020. Odisha and Rajasthan SICs too are functioning at reduced capacity.