[dropcap]A[/dropcap] two-judge bench of the Supreme Court comprising Justices A K Sikri and Abdul Nazeer has issued slew of directions on a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) filed by noted RTI activists Anjali Bhardwaj, Commodore Lokesh Batra (Retd.) and Amrita Johri seeking filling up of the vacancies at Central Information Commission and State Information Commissions and also the direction to adhere to the transparent process in the selection process of the Information Commissioners.
While disposing of the PIL, Court has issued following directions:
Insofar as transparency in appointment of Information Commissioners is concerned, pursuant to the directions given by this Court, the Central Government is now placing all necessary information including issuance of the advertisement, receipt and applications, particulars of the applicants, composition of Selection Committee etc. on the website. All States shall also follow this system.
Insofar as terms and conditions of appointment are concerned, no doubt, Section 13(5) of RTI Act states that the CIC and Information Commissioners shall be appointed on the same terms and conditions as applicable to the Chief Election Commissioner/Election Commissioner. At the same time, it would also be appropriate if the said terms and conditions on which such appointments are to be made are specifically stipulated in the advertisement and put on website as well.
Likewise, it would also be appropriate for the Search Committee to make the criteria for shortlisting the candidates, public, so that it is ensured that shortlisting is done on the basis of objective and rational criteria.
Information Commissioners are appointed from other streams, as mentioned in the Act and the selection is not limited only to the Government employee/ex-government employee. In this behalf, the respondents shall also take into consideration and follow the below directions given by this Court in Union of India vs. Namit Sharma
Centre and State governments to fill up vacancies, in future, without any delay. For this purpose, 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.
The Court has also granted liberty to the petitioners to the petitioners to approach the Court again, if the occasion so demands. The Petitioners were represented by advocate Prashant Bhushan and Pranav Sachdeva.
Background of the Case
PIL was filed on July 2, 2018 seeking appointment of Information Commissioners in the Central Information Commission (CIC) and State Information Commissions (SIC) across the country.
The PIL filed through Advocate Prashant Bhushan alleged that “the Government of India and state governments have attempted to stifle the functioning of the RTI Act by failing to do their statutory duty of ensuring appointment of commissioners in the Central Information Commission and State Information Commissions, in a timely manner. This is despite huge backlogs of appeals and complaints in many information commissions across the country. Due to non-appointment of information commissioners, several information commissions take many months, and in some cases even years, to decide appeals and complaints due to accumulation of pending appeals/complaints, thus defeating the entire object of the RTI Act, 2005”.
The petition also stated that currently there are four vacancies in the Central Information Commission, even as more than 23,500 appeals and complaints are pending. Further, it is averred that Andhra Pradesh State Information Commission has become dysfunctional since no information commissioner has been appointed there.
The PIL further alleged that “the State Information Commission (SIC) of Maharashtra which has a backlog of more than 40,000 appeals and complaints, has four vacancies. The SIC of Kerala is functioning with only a single commissioner and has more than 14,000 pending appeals and complaints. Similarly, there are 6 vacancies in the SIC of Karnataka even though nearly 33,000 appeals and complaints are pending. Odisha is functioning with only 3 commissioners and Telangana with 2 commissioners and their backlogs are more than 10,000 and 15,000 appeals/complaints respectively. The SIC of West Bengal is functioning with only two commissioners and is today hearing appeals/complaints which were filed 10 years ago. Further, several information commissions like that of Gujarat, Nagaland and Maharashtra are functioning without the Chief Information Commissioner, even though the RTI Act envisages a crucial role for the chief commissioner, with the administration and superintendence of the commission vesting with the Chief”.
Pertinently, the petition also highlighted the lack of transparency in the appointment of information commissioners, and the violation of directions of the Supreme Court regarding the procedure for appointment of information commissioners, which, it alleges, is undermining the institution of the information commission. In several cases, courts have set aside the appointment of commissioners due to deficiencies in the selection process.
The PIL contained following prayers:
Direct the Union of India to take immediate steps to fill the vacancies in the CIC by making appointment of 4 information commissioners in a transparent and time-bound manner.
Direct the State Governments of Maharashtra, Gujarat, Andhra Pradesh, Nagaland, West Bengal, Kerala, Karnataka, Odisha, and Telangana to take immediate steps to appoint Chief State Information Commissioners and Information Commissioners of the respective SICs in a transparent and time-bound manner.
Direct the Union of India and all state governments to commence the selection process for information commissioners, including the Chief, at least three months prior to the occurrence of vacancy.
Direct the Union of India and all state governments to ensure that all records of deliberations and rational criteria related to shortlisting and selection of the Chief Information Commissioner and other Information Commissioners be properly recorded and made available to citizens in consonance with the provisions of the RTI Act.
Direct the Union of India and all the state governments to evolve an appropriate and transparent method of selection of Chief Information Commissioner and other Information Commissioners in consonance with the provisions of the Act.
Direct the Union of India and all state governments to ensure transparency in the selection process by:
Publishing advertisements to invite applications from eligible candidates.
Publicly disclosing, including through the website, the eligibility criteria for appointment as information commissioner/chief.
Publicly disclosing, including through the website, the procedure and rational criteria for shortlisting candidates, if any shortlisting is done.
Publicly disclosing, including through the website, the composition, mandate and minutes of meetings of the screening/search committee set up.
Publicly disclosing the names of short-listed candidates so that people can inform the selection committee any significant adverse information they may have about any such candidate