In the wake of the Supreme Court’s order, State Information Commissions wait for clarity

The Supreme Court order last week that set down new rules for Information Commissions hearing Right to Information Act appeals has had a significant effect on their functioning in several States, as a quick survey by The Hindu’s Correspondents in different States has found. While some Commissions continue their work, others await clarity.

Confusion in West Bengal

West Bengal Information Commission officials said they were “confused” over the Supreme Court order but maintained that work was going on as usual.

State Chief Information Commissioner Sujit Kumar Sarkar said in Kolkata that the Commission was awaiting a directive from the Centre — particularly from the Department of Personnel and Training. In the West Bengal SIC, none of the three Information Commissioners including the Chief Information Commissioner has a judicial background. While the CIC is a retired IPS officer, G.D. Gautama and K.J. Koshy, the two Commissioners, are retired IAS officers.

“The implementation of the Supreme Court order is going to take some time as Information Commissioners are appointed by a committee comprising the Chief Minister, Leader of the Opposition and a Cabinet Minister nominated by the Chief Minister,” Mr. Sarkar said.

One Commissioner said an amendment to the Right to Information Act, 2005 would be required to make way for retired Supreme Court judges to head the Commissions.

“As per the RTI Act, the tenure of an Information Commissioner comes to end when he turns 65 or has completed five years of service, whichever is earlier. Supreme Court Judges retire at 65, so they cannot be appointed Chief Information Commissioner unless an amendment is made to the Act,” he said.

The Court order has drawn a mixed response from RTI activists. Some argue that with judges heading the Information Commissions it will make the bodies neutral and its directives will carry more weight. One group said that with judges heading the Information Commissions, they may end up functioning like judicial tribunals and the objective of making information available to the people through the RTI Act may be lost.

Standstill in Rajasthan

The Supreme Court order has brought the functioning of the Rajasthan Information Commission (RIC) to a near standstill. The State has just the Chief Information Commissioner, who is a retired civil servant, and no other Information Commissioner. Rajasthan pioneered the Right to Information movement, but ever since the RTI Act, 2005 came into force, it has been just the CIC managing it except for a brief period when the incumbent, T. Srinivasan, a former Chief Secretary, was the Information Commissioner. Mr. Srinivasan succeeded M.D. Kaurani, the first CIC (also a civil servant) in September 2011 on his retirement.

As pending cases mounted at the RIC, Aruna Roy, a pioneer of the movement, filed an application to get information on the meetings of the committee headed by the Chief Minister, on appointing Information Commissioners. She had to approach the First Appellate Authority, after her application failed to elicit information.

Ms. Roy was not available for comment on the Supreme Court order as she was abroad. “We are seized of the situation emerging from the Supreme Court order. In the present situation it is obvious that the Rajasthan Commission cannot function,” noted Girdhari Singh Bafna, Advocate General.

While the RTI movement at the national level is reportedly getting ready with a formal response, the immediate reaction from the RTI Manch, Rajasthan was this: “This judgement is a mixed bag like some previous pronouncements of the Court on RTI-related matters. Now all ICs will have to stop work until members with judicial background are appointed. This is exactly the kind of judgement that many bureaucrats wanted.”

Assam suspends hearings

In Assam, hearings by the SIC were temporarily suspended in view of the Supreme Court’s order as the State Information Commission has no judicial member.

State Information Commissioner Mohan Chandra Malakar on Monday conveyed to Assam Governor J.B. Patnaik the temporary suspension of hearings by the Commission in view of the Supreme Court ruling. However, other routine work of providing information by the designated Public Information Officer in all the government offices would continue as before, Commission sources said.

Prior to suspension, the lone State Information Commissioner was hearing three or four cases a day.

Assam has three sanctioned posts in the State Information Commission — one CIC and two ICs. Against these, only one Commissioner is available. After the previous CIC D.N. Dutt, retired, Mr. Malakar is holding charge.

Work on in U.P.

The Uttar Pradesh State Information Commission continues to function normally. Chief Information Commissioner Ranjit Singh Pankaj said he had not received the judgment and would not comment without studying it.

Mr. Pankaj said cases were being heard daily. But, against its sanctioned strength of 10 Information Commissioners and a Chief Information Commissioner, there are only three members. It has the Chief Information Commissioner and two ICs, Gyan Prakash Maurya and Khadijatul Kubra, wife of Jamil Akhtar, who was media adviser to the former Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister, Mayawati.

Considering that Uttar Pradesh has lagged behind in implementing the Right to Information Act, the absence of requisite number of Commissioners added to the pendency load. Vacancies have not been filled up since July 2012 when four ICs demitted office. On an average, more than 200 cases were being heard.

“The hearing of cases has not been affected after the court ruling, but the workload has increased, with about 300 cases being heard each day,” said Mr. Maurya.

Eight posts of Commissioners are vacant since July. While four retired in July, four had left office in September-October 2011. The Akhilesh Yadav government’s efforts to fill the vacancies hit a hurdle with the file being returned by Governor B.L. Joshi.

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