Files already piled up on the Chief Information Commissioner’s desk could take up to 2020 to clear. Delay in appointing the CIC hurts the objectives of both the RTI Act and the PM’s pledge of good governance.
The RTI Act, 2005 provided for a Central Information Commission and State Information Commissions to deal with appeals and complaints against public authorities. Section 12 of the RTI Act states, “The Central Information Commission shall consist of the Chief Information Commissioner (CIC), and such number of Central Information Commissioners, not exceeding 10, as may be deemed necessary.”
While in some cases the Central Information Commission has taken a restrained approach towards government machinery, particularly high offices of the country, it has generally been pro-transparency.
The post of CIC has been vacant since August 22, 2014, when the tenure of the sixth CIC, Rajiv Mathur, came to an end. At that time, 7,650 complaints and appeals were pending with the CIC’s office. On April 26, 2015, as this is being written, the pendency has nearly doubled to 14,152 cases.
A broad analysis of data shows Information Commissioners are able to dispose of 200-300 cases per month on average. At this rate, if a new CIC were to start work from May 1, and dispose of 250 pending cases per month, he or she will take at least 56 months, or until January 2020, just to clear this backlog — not counting all the new cases that will land on the CIC’s desk through these four-and-a-half years.
Some more stats: When Satyananda Mishra retired as CIC on September 4, 2013, the total pendency before the Commission was 21,119. As on April 26, it was 37,987. Assuming each of the seven Information Commissioners dispose of 250 cases a month, they would take more than 21 months — until January 2017 — to clear them all.
The fact that the appointment of the CIC has been delayed means that in effect, there is no hope of appeals or complaints being redressed if they relate to any of the high-profile departments dealt with by the CIC — that is, the President’s and V-P’s Secretariats, PMO, Parliament, Supreme Court and HCs, Election Commission, Cabinet Secretariat, CAG, UPSC, Staff Selection Commission, CBI, CVC, DoPT and several important central ministries among many other high offices.
The RTI Act has been a revolutionary instrument of empowerment. The kind of transparency India has seen in public life in the last 10 years was unthinkable earlier. It has given every ordinary Indian with Rs 10 to spare the courage to seek any information from a government office. For BPL applicants, the information comes for free.
Quick disposal of cases was the hallmark of the RTI Act. Several requests are related to daily life struggles of ordinary citizens, and they lose hope if the matter stretches. The mounting pendency at the Central Information Commission is reminiscent of the Consumer Protection Act (COPRA). For a few years after that law came into force in 1986, disposals were quick, and there were provisions to ensure that no hearing should be delayed beyond a certain time. But gradually, the Consumer Forums and Commissions were flooded with complaints, and the Act became ineffective.
Up until the time of Rajiv Mathur, the seniormost Information Commissioner was by convention appointed the CIC. In October 2014, the government advertised the post of CIC, and over 200 applications were received, Earlier in July, it had advertised three posts of Commissioners, and received over 500 applications. The DoPT recently told The Indian Express in reply to an RTI application that it is yet to shortlist applicants.
The NDA government has already broken the ‘seniormost’ convention at UPSC, where it appointed Deepak Gupta chairman, bypassing the seniormost member, Alka Sirohi.
The RTI law was conceived by Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s government in 2002 by the name of Freedom of Information Act, but the credit went to Sonia Gandhi. The delay in appointing the CIC militates against Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s declared “quest for transparency and accountability”.