Right to information is under challenge in the State owing to reluctance of officials to part with information and the failure of the State Information Commission to decide and enforce its orders in many cases. Cases have been piling up before Commission.
Now, it is facing the prospect of politicisation also.
The Committee for selection of State Information Commissioners recently recommended politician Sony B. Thengamom and former IAS Officer M.N. Gunavardhanan to the Governor for appointment as members of the Commission. Mr. Thengamom is the Kollam district secretary of the CPI and member of its State Council. (The Selection Committee comprised Chief Minister V. S. Achuthanandan, Opposition Leader Oommen Chandy and Home Minister Kodiyeri Balakrishnan. The matter is pending before the Governor.)
The Right to Information Act specifies that the State Chief Information Commissioner and the State Information Commissioners shall be persons of eminence in public life with wide knowledge and experience in law, science and technology, social service, management, journalism, mass media or administration and governance.
It also mandates that they shall not be a Member of Parliament or Member of the Legislature of any State or Union territory, as the case may be, or hold any other office of profit or connected with any political party or carrying on any business or pursuing any profession.
RTI activists point out that that the appointment of persons with political background as members of the Commission would undermine the Commission as had happened in the case of Women’s Commission. The appointment of bureaucrats as members too was not very desirable as they were not seen to be upholding the right to information to the fullest extent. Any partisanship by the Commission would lead to denial of the right to information which the Supreme Court had held as a fundamental right.
Appointments to the Central and State Information Commissioners have often appeared to be arbitrary in the past. No transparent selection or short-listing process exists before the Committee decides on the names. The government is yet to bring rules in the regard.
Proper procedures are also lacking regarding the functioning of the Commission. Cases remain with the commissioners for months and even for more than a year without a hearing. Some cases are not heard. The absence of clear norms on hearing the complaints at times leads to manipulations by the staff of the commission.
According to Secretary to the Commission P. Jayakumar, complaints and appeal petitions are decided on a first come, first serve basis. While complaints about non-disposal of application by State Information Officers are addressed in about a month, appeal petitions take six to seven months to be heard. However, he admitted that some cases had not been heard even after a year. Delay in replacement of Commissioners, whose tenure had ended, affected the functioning of the Commission.
The Commission had received 14635 papers in 2009-10 of which 1256 were complaints and 1556 were appeal petitions. During the year, 1350 complaints were disposed off (including accumulations from the previous year) and 847 appeal petitions were heard. Of the miscellaneous papers, 11726 were processed.
As it stands now, the Act has no provision to ensure compliance with the orders of the Commission, though it can seek a compliance report from the authorities. If there is no compliance, all that the Commission can do is to write to the heads of department to initiate disciplinary action against the officials concerned. As the heads of departments too would often be a party to denial of information, disciplinary proceedings would be only on paper. If officials do not remit fines imposed by the Commission, it can seek initiation of revenue recovery proceedings. However, a number of officials have challenged imposition of fines before courts, and the cases are pending decision.
While some State information officers do show diligence in releasing information sought by applicants, some people who make repeated requests pose problems, especially at the panchayat level. Heavy volume of requests that tend to affect the functioning of office may lead to measures that proscribe the right.