The Supreme Court is hearing a petition regarding the filling of vacancies in Central Information Commission (CIC). It has emerged, in a PIL filed by activists, that the NDA government, since assuming power in May 2014, has never appointed Information Commissioners in the CIC unless having been urged by courts to do so. Currently, there are four vacancies in the 11-member CIC. CIC is mandated to hear appeals and is a vital part of the Right to Information architecture.
But now, say activists, CIC faces a serious crisis. Four Information Commissioners, including the Chief Information Commissioner, are retiring this month. This will mean eight vacancies will arise in the CIC out of a total of 11 posts. So, while there are over 25,000 pending cases, there will be three Commissioners left in a headless CIC.
Anjali Bhardwaj of National Campaign for Peoples’ Right to Information, who filed the PIL, argues that there were three vacancies in CIC when BJP came to power. The then chief, Rajiv Mathur, retired in August 2014. No vacancies were filled till a petition was moved in Delhi High Court. The court on April 9, 2015, said it was necessary to monitor steps to fill vacancies and it be done in a time-frame, as non-appointments could not be allowed to “frustrate the purpose of the Right to Information Act, 2005”.
The next chief, Vijay Sharma, was appointed on June 10, 2015. As he was an existing member, the resulting vacancy was filled by appointing Sudhir Bhargava. On November 6, 2015, Delhi High Court ordered that the vacancy of three in CIC should be filled in six weeks, and the incoming vacancy of the chief, set to retire on December 2, 2015, should be filled.
The government approached Supreme Court and sought more time, and was granted some more time. The government appointed three more commissioners and the matter was disposed of in February 2016. Until December 2016, CIC functioned with full strength.
But since, four vacancies have arisen after scheduled retirements. None have been filled. In September 2016, the Centre issued a circular inviting applications for two incoming vacancies, but more than two years down the line, those vacancies are yet to be filled.
A PIL about vacancies in Central (and various State) Information Commissions was filed in Supreme Court on April 25, 2018. The matter was heard by the Supreme Court on July 27. While the Centre had not filed a reply, on the date of the hearing, they published an advertisement in newspapers inviting applications for the post of information commissioners. However, it did not specify how many posts were being advertised. Also, details of salary and tenure were left unspecified.
Said Bhardwaj, “The Centre filed its reply (dated August 27) to the PIL. The affidavit essentially reveals that the government has been intending to amend the RTI Act since 2016 to undermine the independence of information commissions and, therefore, hasn’t filled any vacancies in the CIC.”