How the Vacant Post of Chief Information Commissioner Has been Diluting the Right to Information Act

08 April 2015
President Pranab Mukherjee administers the oath to Rajiv Mathur as Chief Information Commissioner at a swearing-in ceremony at Rashtrapati Bhavan, in New Delhi in May 2014. Mathur retired on 22 August 2014, but the government is yet to appoint his replacement at the Central Information Commission.

Tomorrow, on 9 April 2015, Prime Minister Narendra Modi is scheduled to visit France to kick off his three-nation tour to France, Germany and Canada. We know that he may discuss smart cities with the French president Francois Hollande, and that he may even take a boat ride across the picturesque Siene river. But the information that we will probably not be privileged to receive, is the cost that the state will have to bear for this foreign tour. Last September, Venkatesh Nayak, who heads the Access to Information Program at the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, an international non-government organisation headquartered in Delhi, filed an application under the Right to Information Act (RTI) asking for details of the expenditure that was incurred on the prime minister's tours. Four months later, on 16 January 2015, he was denied the information by the Prime Minister's Office (PMO) that cited section 8(1)—which lists the exceptions that can be cited for refusal to disclose information—as justification for the non-disclosure. Not too long ago, when Dr Manmohan Singh was the prime minister, this information was publicly displayed on the PMO's website.

Nayak could have sought recourse by filing an appeal, but he does not have that option until the Central Information Commission—which examines RTI complaints—hires a Chief Information Commissioner (CIC), and if the sequence of events that has taken place in the past year is any indication, then this recruitment may not be happening any time soon.

On 20 October 2009, Wajahat Habibullah, the first CIC of India, sent his written resignation to the then president, Pratibha Patil. In his letter, Habibullah expressed his intention to take up a new assignment as the Right to Information (RTI) head of Jammu and Kashmir, on the request of the state’s chief minister at that time, Omar Abdullah. Nearly four months later, Habibullah was still serving as the CIC, and reports suggested that his request was denied. The United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government had not been able to find a replacement for Habibullah, and he eventually retired from the post in September 2010. “I met Prime Minister Manmohan Singh a few days back. He told me to continue because they have not been able to find me a successor,” Habibullah offered by way of explanation in an Indian Express report. More recently, when we spoke this Monday, he recalled being told by the President’s office that, “In the absence of a Chief Information Commissioner, all the work being done by the Central Information Commission runs the risk of becoming invalid.” A letter that was reportedly sent by TY Das, the secretary of the Central Information Commission to the central government, stating that the committee would be left without an administrative head in the absence of a CIC seemed to echo these concerns.

Perhaps, Habibullah would have had better luck with the current dispensation. After all, the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government does not appear to be as concerned about this post lying vacant, if anything, it seems to be indifferent.

Seven months ago, Rajiv Mathur, the former CIC of the Central Information Commission retired on 22 August 2014. The government put out an advertisement to invite applications from candidates in the last week of October. Five months later, the post still remains unoccupied. Responding to an RTI that was filed by (Retd.) Commodore Lokesh Batra regarding the delay, the Department of Personnel and Training (DoPT)—the coordinating agency with the central government for all issues relating to recruitment, training, career development and staff welfare—said that the file related to the appointment of the CIC had been stuck with the PMO since 1 August 2014. “The current disinterestedness of the powers that be to appoint members of the commission,” Nayak believed, “betrays a likely tactic to extinguish the effectiveness of the RTI Act.”

Atul Dev is a staff writer at The Caravan.