Thursday, March 16, 2017

Government Agency Meant to Ensure Transparency Refuses to Share Information : By Gaurav Vivek Bhatnagar

The Wire: New Delhi: Thursday, March 16, 2017.
When it comes to transparency, it seems the Narendra Modi government is moving in reverse. The Department of Personnel and Training, the nodal agency responsible for effectively implementing the Right to Information (RTI) Act, has refused to share details on the appointment of information commissioners, claiming that the body is exempted from doing so.
The response of the chief public information officer (CPIO) of the department and the first appellate authority, which upheld the decision, has not gone down well with the applicant and RTI activist, Commodore (Retd.) Lokesh Batra. He has claimed that, in denying the information, the “DoPT has decided to go in reverse gear by overturning its own previous order and ignoring the CIC order.”
Batra pointed out that in the first ten years of RTI, the central government had “no issue in transparently sharing information with citizens, regarding selection of Chief/Information Commissioners in Central Information Commission.” And that its stance had changed somewhat in the last year and a half.
In December 2015, Batra said, the CPIO of the DoPT had suddenly presumed the papers relating to the selection of commissioners in the CIC to be “cabinet papers”. However, in 2016, the first appellate authority of the DoPT had rejected the CPIO’s contention and observed that “the basic information sought by the applicant, cannot be equated with Cabinet papers and should have been provided by the CPIO to the applicant.”
The authority had also directed the CPIO to revisit the application and provide the applicant with point-wise information within 15 working days of the order being issued.
Because the two IC appointments had not been announced even several months after the posts were advertised in September 2016, Batra filed an application in January this year to find out what was happening. With the pendency of cases in the CIC nearing the 30,000 mark, he demanded to know the names of those who had applied for the posts as well as the criteria adopted for processing, shortlisting and screening names (before they were forwarded to the selection committee). He had also asked about the screening committee’s composition.
To his surprise, this time too CPIO Preeti Khanna only provided one part of the information and stated that 225 applications had been received for the posts of ICs. This despite the FAA having earlier noted that such information should be provided. However, this time the CPIO declined information on all the other aspects claiming exemption under Section 8(1)(i) & (j) of the RTI Act, 2005. Further section 12(3) of the RTI Act lays down the procedure to appoint ICs.
Batra finally appealed to the first appellate authority on February 9. He insisted that Section 8(1)(i) states with respect to “cabinet papers including records of deliberations of the Council of Ministers, Secretaries and other officers” that “the decisions of Council of Ministers, the reasons thereof, and the material on the basis of which the decisions were taken shall be made public after the decision has been taken, and the matter is complete, or over: Provided further that those matters which come under the exemptions specified in this section shall not be disclosed.”
He also noted that Section 8(1)(j) covers “information which relates to personal information the disclosure of which has no relationship to any public activity or interest, or which would cause unwarranted invasion of the privacy of the individual unless the Central Public Information Officer or the State Public Information Officer or the appellate authority, as the case may be, is satisfied that the larger public interest justifies the disclosure of such information: Provided that the information, which cannot be denied to the Parliament or a State Legislature shall not be denied to any person.”
Therefore, he contended that the exemption clause would not apply to his appeal. “… I quoted and attached my appeal and FAA’s Order in my 2015 case mentioned at Paras 8 above since information requested was basic and same like past. On March 3, 2017, I also forwarded a copy of CIC Order quoted in my appeal.”
However, Batra said the authority had remained silent in its March 8 order on his arguments in the appeal. These included the ones pertaining to the previous FAA’s order and the CIC order of December 21, 2012.