A two-judge bench of the Supreme Court comprising Justices A K Sikri and Abdul Nazeer has issued slew of directions in 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.
Supreme Court also makes it clear that status of Information Commissioners be at par with Election Commissioners.
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While disposing of the PIL, Court has issued following directions:
- Candidates other than bureaucrats should be considered for posts of Information Commissioners.
- Fill up all vacancies in State Information Commissions within 6 month. Process to fill vacancies in the Information Commissions to commence two months prior to occurrence of the vacancies. If the process to fill up pending vacancies have started the same must be completed within 2 to 3 months. In case, process is not started at all, then complete it within 6 months.
- Status of Information Commissioners should be at par with Election Commissioners.
- Court observes strength of Information Commissioners in States is less. Recommends to increase the number of Information Commissioners in States.
- Search Committee guidelines for short-listing of candidates should be made public. Also the name of candidates should be made public to ensure transparency in the selection process.
Petitioners were represented by advocate Prashant Bhushan and Pranav Sachdeva.
Background of the case
The 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
The Story will be updated once judgment is uploaded on the Supreme Court’s website.