Friday, March 17, 2017

Nodal agency for RTI refuses information on selection of information commissioners

Moneylife: New Delhi: Friday, March 17, 2017.
The Department of Personnel & Training (DoPT), the nodal agency for implementation of the Right to Information (RTI) Act, has chosen to be secretive regarding information on the selection process of information commissioners (IC), even though activists had successfully fought to make the selection process of chief information commissioners and information commissioners transparent. In fact, DoPT itself had earlier given information under RTI, regarding the number and names of applicants for these crucial posts, and any other information pertaining to this issue. Also, an order from the Central Information Commission (CIC) of 2012 supports transparency in this regard.
The trigger for denying information pertained to appointments for two information commissioners, posts which were advertised in September 2016 but to date no appointments have been made, despite the fact that Information commissioners MA Khan Yusfi and Basant Seth have completed their tenures in December 2016 and March 2017, respectively. Considering that these two vacancies have added to second appeal pendency, which numbers 30,000 now, activist Commodore (retd) Lokesh Batra filed an RTI application in January 2017, and subsequently a first appeal in March 2017. But these were stonewalled.
Last week, the DoPT has denied information on Batra’s RTI query on the list, with names of applicants who have applied for ICs posts, names of Screening Committee members and inspection of files of the same. It has only replied to his query on the total number of applications received in DoPT for ICs posts in CIC. It stated that 225 applications were received by the DoPT for the post of the two information commissioners.
Both the Central Public Information Officer (CPIO) and the First Appellate Authority (FAA) of the DoPT have irrelevantly clung to two sub-sections of Section 8 of the RTI Act, to deny information. The exemptions are:
Section 8(1) (i): “Cabinet papers, including records of deliberations of the Council of Ministers, Secretaries and other officers: Provided 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” and Section 8 (1) (j): “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.
Interestingly, a CIC decision on 21 December 2012 has ordered that since files relating to appointment of information commissioners “are most demanded by citizens, the department can decide to upload all files in their website since, in our opinion, there could be very little in these files which could come under any of the exemption provisions.”
It further stated “We direct the CPIO to obtain the orders of the competent authority within the department and carry out the uploading within a month of receiving this order. This option would be far more economical than employing larger number of personnel to assist the CPIO”.
In fact, the Delhi High Court, in its order of 9 April 2015, has also reprimanded the delay in the appointment of information commissioners. The HC stated, “…having regard to the undisputed fact that the non-appointment of the Chief Information Commissioner has virtually frustrated the very purpose of the Right to Information Act, 2005, we are of the view that it is necessary for this court to monitor the steps that are being taken for filling up the vacancies in question so as to ensure that all the vacancies are filled up within a timeframe.”
Regarding DoPT somersaulting on the CIC decision and its own record of showing transparency in this issue, Commodore (retd) Batra rues, “…none of the information requested falls in the exemption clauses, which was accepted by previous FAA and also CIC order of 21 December 2012. The DoPT is now making a mockery of the transparency law. Are authorities responsible for implementing transparency regime moving in reverse gear?”
Former Central Information Commissioner and RTI activist, Shailesh Gandhi, says, “This is a very unfortunate development, which suggests that there is a regression in the approach to RTI. We will all need to find a way to stop this.”