Thursday, July 12, 2018

Info commissioners: fill up vacancies

Deccan Herald: Opinion: Thursday, July 12, 2018.
The Supreme Court has pulled up the central government and eight state governments for their laxity in appointing information commissioners. The court has issued notices to them on the basis of a petition filed by Right to Information (RTI) activists seeking a directive by the court to appoint the commissioners immediately. The petition wants governments to start the process of appointment four months before a post falls vacant. The vacancies in the information commissions are glaring. The eight states include Karnataka, where there are six vacancies, Andhra Pradesh, where all posts are vacant, and Maharashtra, where there are four vacancies. Gujarat does not have a chief information commissioner, either. The shortage of commissioners has affected the work in all information commissions. The petition has said that the governments are trying to stifle the information law by refusing to appoint commissioners in time. The commissions are partially paralysed in most states and fully non-functional in Andhra Pradesh.
Due to the shortage of commissioners, there are 23,500 complaints and appeals pending at the Central Information Commission. Karnataka has a backlog of 33,000 cases, and Maharashtra 40,000. Other states also have thousands of cases pending. The RTI Act prescribes a statutory period of 30 days for a query to be answered. The first appeal has to be disposed of within 45 days. But cases are pending in some states for years. Information often becomes irrelevant and useless when it is not given in time. The delay is deliberately caused by government departments and agencies which do not want to give away information that may put them in an uncomfortable situation. The failure to appoint commissioners is part of that strategy, and the situation is created by governments to defeat the purpose of the RTI law. The Supreme Court’s question to the governments as to why appointments are not made despite a huge backlog has this clear answer.
The tendency to refuse information on various grounds is also increasing. Most of these are flimsy and untenable excuses. The aim is to buy time till a decision is taken on appeal, and to tire out the petitioner through the official process. There have also been attempts to discourage the filing of petitions by other means, like increasing the fee and introducing procedural changes. Governments, political parties and leaders have not been kind to people’s right to information ever since RTI became law and have tried in many ways to subvert it. But citizens should make sure that they do not lose the power that they have gained through RTI. The court must direct the central and state governments to make timely appointments of information commissioners.