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‘Eroding independence’: Govt wants to probe complaints against former CICs, ICs too

The findings of the committee would be submitted to the President. If he is of the opinion there are reasonable grounds for inquiry, he would refer it to the Chief Justice of India, who may nominate a Supreme Court judge to conduct an inquiry.

Written by P Vaidyanathan Iyer | New Delhi |
April 3, 2019 2:40:21 am
Central Information Commission building in New Delhi.

IT is not just complaints against the sitting Chief Information Commissioner (CIC) and Information Commissioners (ICs) that the government proposes to scrutinise by setting up committees dominated by bureaucrats, as reported in The Indian Express Tuesday but also complaints against former CICs and ICs.

In a March 7 note to Secretary, Central Information Commission, the Department of Personnel and Training (DoPT) proposed that complaints against former commissioners too be scrutinised by a committee chaired by the sitting CIC with DoPT Secretary and Secretary (Coordination), Cabinet Secretariat, as its members.

The proposed guidelines state: “If on preliminary scrutiny, the concerned committee considers it necessary to investigate into the allegation, it shall devise its own procedure and method of investigation which may include recording of evidence of the complainant and collection of material relevant to the inquiry which may thereafter be conducted by a judge of the Supreme Court.”

The findings of the committee would be submitted to the President. If he is of the opinion there are reasonable grounds for inquiry, he would refer it to the Chief Justice of India, who may nominate a Supreme Court judge to conduct an inquiry.

At least two former CICs told The Indian Express that the Right To Information Act did not allow for such scrutiny. Said Wajahat Habibullah, the first Chief Information Commissioner who served for five years beginning October 26, 2005: “The Commission is totally an autonomous body. The proposal is ultra vires of law.”

“While I cannot speak for the Chief Information Commissioner (the DoPT has proposed that the sitting CIC chair the committee to scrutinise the complaints against former CICs/ ICs), it is unlikely he will agree to such guidelines. This proposal cannot succeed,” Habibullah said.

Former CIC Satyananda Mishra said, “Under which section of the RTI Act will the government look at complaints against former CICs and ICs? The law does not provide any arrangement.”

The two former CICs, however, had a different view on the proposal to hear complaints against sitting CIC/ ICs. Habibullah said, “It is clear the government wants to have a hand in this. But this will intrude on the autonomy of the institution. It is not acceptable,” he said.

Mishra said, “Let’s imagine there is no committee. Then the entire handle will be with some junior officer in the DoPT. The proposed committee can act as a mature filter. The proposed guidelines may be aimed at having a formal a structure for addressing complaints against sitting commissioners.”

Habibullah said in the fourth year as CIC, he passed an order which facilitated the setting up of an institutional mechanism to tackle such complaints. “The idea was to introduce transparency and accountability in addressing complaints within the Commission,” he said.

The process of addressing complaints has undergone nuanced changes since the Central Information Commission was established. At present, complaints against CIC and ICs are referred back to the Commission itself. The CIC sensitizes the commissioners when the Commission meets, without naming any specific IC.

In an earlier meeting, the Commission decided that complaints against CIC/ICs should be kept separately in a file with the Chief Information Commissioner. Details regarding the same are not disclosed to a third party under Section 8(1)(j). The section relates to exemption from disclosure of personal information to citizens which has no relationship to any public activity or interest which would cause unwarranted invasion of the privacy of the individual.

When contacted, Chief Information Commissioner Sudhir Bhargava told The Indian Express that the Commission received the DoPT note earlier this month. “We discussed the proposals during the full Commission meeting on March 27. The Commission’s views will be sent before the month-end.”

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