During the Lok Sabha elections last year, as the BJP’s chief campaigner, Narendra Modi would highlight the effectiveness of the Right to Information (RTI) Act in countering corruption. He would exhort party cadres to use it as a tool to expose the underbelly of governance. More recently, while addressing judges at a conference, he mentioned the RTI as an instrument to keep politicians in check. His refusal, therefore, to support the institution that holds the key to the effective implementation of the decade-old RTI Act — the Central Information Commission — raises questions. Now, the Delhi High Court has stepped in and, on Thursday, it pulled up the Centre for the delay in appointing the chief information commissioner (CIC) and three other central information commissioners. The government has asked for more time, till May.
The office of the CIC has been vacant since the last occupant retired in August 2014. The Modi administration refused to follow the UPA government’s precedent of elevating the seniormost central information commissioner to the CIC’s office and advertised anew. The government received over 200 applications by November, but it has not yet even prepared a shortlist. The term of three commissioners ended this year and the government has not moved on the 500-plus applications it has received for the posts. The CIC is critical to the functioning of the commission since there is no provision in the RTI Act to appoint a temporary head. With the CIC absent, RTI requests have been piling up at the commission. At last count, the pendency was a staggering 37,700 applications, up from 22,000 in January 2014 — a massive burden the government will be foisting on the next CIC and commissioners. If the pile-up becomes bigger, the information commission too will go the way of the courts, where the wait for justice can extend to years.
The RTI Act was the outcome of civil society campaigns to make governance transparent and more accountable. It has helped activists and opposition parties expose corruption in government — including that of the UPA, which legislated the act. Modi must recognise that the RTI is vital to achieving his goal of minimum government, maximum governance. Further procrastination by his administration on this matter could even be interpreted as an attempt to stifle the act.