In the wake of Supreme Court order, State Information Commissions wait for clarity on members

State Information Commissions hearing Right to Information Act appeals await clarifications on their future course of action, in the wake of the Supreme Court order that Information Commissions at the respective levels shall henceforth work in Benches of two members each, one of them a ‘judicial member’ and the other an ‘expert member’. A quick survey of the Commissions presented a mixed picture, with some confidently continuing their work, and others awaiting clarifications from the Centre and their own Advocates General.

Tamil Nadu SIC open

The Tamil Nadu State Information Commission said it was functioning effectively as three of the six Information Commissioners had a legal background to handle cases under the Right to Information Act, 2005.

Asked about the recent Supreme Court order on Information Commissions, sources in the State Information Commission said: “There is no hitch in our functioning. We have constituted new benches, coincidentally on the same day as the Supreme Court order.”

The SIC had been functioning for quite some time with just the Chief Information Commissioner (former Chief Secretary K.S. Sripathi) and T. Srinivasan, a former civil servant, as the lone Information Commissioner. On September 1, five new Commissioners were appointed, raising the strength to six excluding the CIC.

Among the new Commissioners, three have a legal background, say sources. They are S.F. Akbar, a former District Judge, B. Neelambikai, an advocate and former member of the Tamil Nadu Public Service Commission, and P. Tamilselvan, a former additional public prosecutor.

On the Supreme Court order, Commission sources said it was a directive to the Union government, which had to decide whether to amend the law as per the judgment. The judgment would have only “prospective effect, and would not affect those persons already appointed.”

Hearings suspended

The Maharashtra SIC adjourned hearings and sought legal opinion. “We have sought a clarification from the Advocate General of Maharashtra and the Department of Personnel and Training (DoPT), Government of India through the Maharashtra government. A clarification is awaited,” State Chief Information Commissioner Ratnakar Gaikwad told The Hindu on Monday.

Hearings have been suspended in all divisions in the State -- Mumbai, Greater Mumbai, Nashik, Nagpur, Pune, Konkan, Aurangabad, Nagpur and Amravati.

The use of the word “henceforth” in the order has left Information Commissioners in a dilemma about holding further hearings in the absence of a ‘judicial member,’ said Bhaskar Patil, Information Commissioner in Nagpur, who holds additional charge of Amravati. “A judicial member may not be available. If hearings are still conducted, would it amount to contempt of court? Since it’s a Supreme Court judgment, we must have clarity from the AG and DoPT. We also have to see what the other States are doing so that there is uniformity. Till then hearings are suspended.”

The court order brought to the fore the demand of RTI activists for greater transparency in the Commission’s working. In June, activists challenged Mr. Gaikwad’s appointment to the post of CIC claiming it involved a “conflict of interest” since he was a former bureaucrat.

In Karnataka

The Karnataka Information Commission comprising a Chief Information Commissioner and five Information Commissioners has been functioning normally, although some of the Commissioners are “informally aware” of the orders of the Supreme Court.

Commission sources told The Hindu that “the view here is that the State is not a party to the case although the orders of the Supreme Court are applicable across the country. A copy of the court order has been sought before any action can be initiated. There is also no clarity on whether the order is applicable prospectively [on retirement of the incumbent commissioners] or immediately”.

The State Information Commission has six members and none of them have been members of the judiciary. Four of the six are retired bureaucrats and of the two others, one is a member of the bar and the other a member of the medical profession. The present Chief Commissioner is a retired Additional Chief Secretary to the State government while his predecessor, the first CIC was a former Chief Secretary. The Karnataka commission has a sanctioned strength of one Chief Commissioner and ten Commissioners.

Karnataka State Information Commission has sought permission to set up benches in North Karnataka to facilitate early disposal of pending appeals.

In Andhra Pradesh, Chief Information Commissioner Jannat Hussain has addressed letters to Chief Secretary Minnie Mathew and Advocate General A. Sudarshan Reddy seeking a clarification.

The AP Information Commission has, however, decided to continue to hear appeals, pending written advice from the AG or a directive from the State. “The full bench of the Commission, which discussed the issue, has decided to continue hearings as the issue deals with the common man and there is large pendency of petitions,” Mr. Hussain said. Close examination of the 300-odd page ruling of the Supreme Court showed there was nothing to stop the SIC from conducting hearings. There was no clarity since the order said the new guidelines should be followed ‘henceforth’, some sources said.

(To be continued)