Thursday’s Supreme Court ruling on appointments to the Central and State Information Commissions has shaken the world of Right to Information with activists and information commissioners wondering if the order will effectively halt the functioning of the Commissions.
Asked Chief Information Commissioner Satyananda Mishra: “Does the ruling mean that the RTI Act stands amended suo motu?” He has convened an emergency meeting for Friday to understand the import of the ruling, which seeks a complete overhaul of the system of Information Commissions. Mr. Mishra also wants the Law Ministry to immediately advise the CIC on whether or not it can continue to function.
Among other things, the court ruled that all Commissions must henceforth work in benches of two members each, one of whom will be a “judicial member” defined as a person “having a degree in law, having a judicially trained mind and experience in performing judicial functions.”
Two, the Chief Information Commissioner at the Centre must necessarily be a person “who is or has been the Chief Justice of a High Court or a judge of the Supreme Court.”
Three, the judicial members “shall be” appointed in “consultation with the Chief Justice of India and the Chief Justices of the High Courts of the respective States.”
The first person to be affected by this is Mr. Mishra himself. The CIC can no longer be a retired bureaucrat which is what he is.
Mr. Mishra is unsure where he stands: “The court says the ruling is to come into effect prospectively but we do not know if this means we have to wait until the existing commissioners retire or the changes will come into effect immediately.”
The Central Information Commission now has 11 posts, none of which is held by a member with a judicial background. Three posts are vacant. For the Commission to work in benches of two, it has to have at least 12 members. Of the 12, six have to be judicial members, which means a minimum of two of the existing members have to be replaced. But there are two problems here. All the members do not retire at the same time. Besides, it is nearly impossible under the RTI Act to remove an incumbent commissioner. Said Mr. Mishra: “If the ruling can come into effect only after the members retire, what happens in the interim?”
This is not all. Supreme Court judges retire at 65 which is also the retirement age for Chief Information Commissioners. As veteran RTI activist Subhash Chandra Agrawal asked: “How can a retired judge be appointed CIC?”