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How Govt of India "violated" Supreme Court ruling: Information Commission vacancies

Chief Information Commissioner Sudhir Bhargava
Counterview Desk
On January 1, 2019 five vacancies in the Central Information Commission (CIC) were filled up -- serving Information Commissioner Sudhir Bhargava was appointed Chief Information Commissioner; this apart four retired civil servants were appointed Information Commissioners.
Pending for several months, while five of the nine vacancies in CIC were filled up following a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) filed in the Supreme Court byAnjali Bharadwaj, Anjali Johri and Commodore (retd) Lokesh Batra in the Supreme Court, acting as a major push factor in moving the wheels within Government to make these appointments, replies to an RTI plea suggest how the Government of India bypassed a previous apex court ruling on the procedure adopted for this.
The Supreme Court of India ruling in the matter of Union of India vs. Namit Sharma (AIR 2014 SC 122) said, “persons of eminence in public life with wide knowledge and experience” such fields as “law, science and technology, social service, management, journalism, mass media or administration and governance, be considered” by search and selection committees under while filling up top CIC vacancies.
The Selection Committee comprises of the Prime Minister, his nominee the Finance Minister, and the leader of the single largest party in Opposition in the Lok Sabha, while the selection committee is led by the cabinet secretary, and includes four Government of India bureaucrats and an independent member.
Basing his 3,000 word analysis on the RTI replies he has received on CIC appointments, Venkatesh Nayak of the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI), claims, “Both the Search Committees and the Selection Committee have ignored this decision by favouring retired or serving bureaucrats while making shortlists and recommendations for appointment respectively.”

Excerpts from Nayak’s analysis:

According to the file notings released by the Department of Personnel and Training (DoPT), the process for identifying a suitable candidate for taking over as the Chief Information Commissioner began on the October 12, 2018, more than a month before the previous incumbent demitted office and was completed within a month's duration.
The file notings show that 64 applications were received within the stipulated deadline, from across the country against the vacancy advertised in two English language (“The Hindu” and the “Times of India”) and two Hindi language newspapers (“Dainik Bhaskar” and “Hindustan”). The DoPT has only disclosed the names of these applicants and withheld their applications and bio data by invoking Section 8(1)(j) of the RTI Act which seeks to exempt personal information of an individual from disclosure.
The six-member Search Committee headed by the Cabinet Secretary included the Secretaries of the DoPT and the Department of Expenditure (in the Finance Ministry), the Information & Broadcasting (I&B), and the Additional Secretary to the Prime Minister of India. The Director of the Institute of Economic Growth was the independent Member. Interestingly, the Secretary, Department of Expenditure, declared that he had applied for the post of Information Commissioner. So after consultations with the PMO, he was retained on the Search Committee.
Only four members of the Search Committee met on November 24, 2018 in the Committee Room of the Cabinet Secretariat to draw up the shortlist. According to the file notings disclosed by the DoPT, the Secretary I&B and the Secretary, Expenditure could not attend the meeting.
The Search Committee shortlisted four candidates for the consideration of the Selection Committee. All four of them were retired IAS officers, including the newly appointed Chief Information Commissioner, Sudhir Bhargava. No women were included in this short list. The list of 68 applicants reveals the names of at least four women. No candidate with other areas of specialisation mentioned in the RTI Act were shortlisted.
This is a clear breach of the Supreme Court's directions. Further, the serving Information Commissioners, Bimal Julka and DP Sinha, who had also applied for the post of the Chief Information Commissioner, were not even shortlisted.
Dr SK Nanda
Gujarat govt ex-babu "preferred"
Three of the four shortlisted candidates had not even applied in response to the advertisement for the vacancy of the Chief Information Commissioner. They included Madhav Lal, a former Secretary of the Ministry of Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises, Alok Raawat, a former Secretary of DoPT's sister Department, Department of Administrative Reforms and Public Grievances, RP Watal, the current Principal Adviser Niti Ayog and former Secretary, Department of Expenditure, and Dr SK Nanda, former Additional Chief Secretary, Government of Gujarat.
The Search Committee meeting minutes indicate, its members considered names of other serving and retired civil servants who had not applied at all. This is perplexing to say the least. One of the women applicants had recently retired as the Chief Secretary of the Government of Karnataka. How her candidature was given lesser weightage than that of the former Additional Chief Secretary of Gujarat who had not even put in his application in the first place, is a mystery.
This raises serious questions about the manner in which the Search Committee determined "eminence" in public life. Neither the Committee nor the DoPT have publicised the criteria adopted for determining "eminence in public life". Further, how the claims of the two serving Information Commissioners were undervalued in comparison to the three shortlisted retired bureaucrats who had no previous experience of adjudicating RTI disputes in any Information Commission is also a mystery that needs to be cleared.
What criteria were applied to determine the eligibility of applicants whose applications/bio data for inclusion in the shortlisting/selection process is also not known. This is worrisome because the standards applied to reject applications from those outside the bureaucracy are themselves shrouded in secrecy. Not a single civil society candidate was shortlisted by the Search Committee. The DoPT must urgently disclose the criteria applied for vetting the applications of civil society candidates all of whom were eventually found ineligible by the Search Committee.
The DoPT has advertised more vacancies at the CIC for filling up. As the present Government has less than four months left, it is not desirable to pack any institution with its handpicked candidates. It would be against norms of constitutional propriety for a Government to fill up vacancies when it is at the end of its constitutionally mandated tenure. That process must be left for the Government that will be formed after the General Elections are completed by May 2019.

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