The expertise mentioned in the two RTI laws has become synonymous with the term ‘civil service', says a human rights report
Though stepping into its seventh year since its passage in Parliament on May 15, 2005, the Right to Information (RTI) Act is yet to realise its full potential, feel activists and organisations working on the Act.
The RTI Act was supposed to empower people not only by ensuring their access to information but also by greater democratisation and public participation in the internal functioning and constitution of the commissions, says a study by the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI). The study argues that on several indices, like selection of Information Commissioners, presence of women in Information Commissions (ICs) and over all transparency in the ICs, the picture is not very positive.
The research, which examined both the RTI Act 2005 and the Jammu and Kashmir RTI Act 2010, shows how retired government babus dominate Information Commissions as they are mostly appointed as ICs and Chief Information Commissioners (CICs). In 2006-07, a little more than half of the Information Commissioners (52 per cent) were retired civil servants. In 2012, this number went up by 14 per cent and till May, two-thirds (66 per cent) of the 83 Information Commissioners (including CICs) at the Central and State level are retired civil servants. As much as 90 per cent of the serving CICs are retired civil servants. It has been found that nowhere across the country have eminent citizens with expertise and experience in the fields of management, science and technology, mass media, journalism and social science been appointed as CICs.
Venkatesh Nayak, programme coordinator of the Access to Information Programme, CHRI, says, “The RTI Act was intended to provide a diversity of life experience to such bodies from the fields of science, technology, law, management, social service and mass media whereas practice has turned them into parking lots for retired civil servants who are sympathetic to the political establishment.”
“Governments seem reluctant to trust the eminence and expertise of citizens who have never been civil servants in their lives,” argues Mr. Nayak, adding, “the field of expertise — administration and governance — mentioned in the two RTI laws has become synonymous with the term 'civil service'.”
He says the “packing of information with retired civil servants” has been a major concern which has been highlighted by several studies, including a government-sponsored one conducted by PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) in 2009. In the same manner, the study highlights, nowhere across the country have eminent women been appointed as CICs. Less than 15 per cent of the Information Commissioners (8 out of 54) are women.
When it comes to vacancies in the Information Commissions, 30 per cent of the posts of Information Commissioners in the States are lying vacant (as on May 1, 2012). Just 83 Information Commissioners (including CICs) have been appointed against 117 posts in 29 Information Commissions. These vacancies, says Mr. Nayak, are directly related to approximately more than 30, 000 pending cases in various Information Commissions. Jharkhand has the maximum number of vacancies (six), followed by Tamil Nadu (four). Andhra Pradesh, Arunachal Pradesh, Maharashtra and Uttar Pradesh have three vacancies each.
Interestingly, the study reveals that 50 per cent of the membership of the Haryana State Information Commission is made up of a husband and wife team. Moreover three Information Commissioners served as members of political parties prior to their appointment (in Kerala, Nagaland and Punjab). The report also note that whether they resigned from the political parties before becoming ICs, is not clear, neither are letters of resignation from the primary membership of the respective parties posted on the commissioners' websites.
Only 45 per cent of the Information Commissions (13 out of 29) have uploaded some or all decisions on appeals and complaints for all seven years of their existence. When it comes to making their annual reports available on their websites, there are as many as eight State Information Commissions which have not uploaded any of their annual reports. These include Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Manipur, Uttar Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Sikkim and Tripura.
Recommending the Government to access the pendency of cases before the ICs, the study asks the Government to determine the size of the body required to dispose them off. It also wants the Government to develop objective criteria for determining the suitability of the candidates including the gender dimension, for the vacant posts of ICs, and urges it to ensure that the selection of ICs and CICs be based on the “the very principles underlying the RTI Act, like transparency, public participation and accountability”.
The study also wants the Parliament and the State legislatures to scrutinize the annual reports of the ICs and thereby scrutinize actions of the Government, public authorities and the respective Information Commissions in implementing the RTI Acts.