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Retired govt officers 'control' India's poorly staffed top RTI watchdog bodies: Report

By Our Representative
An analysis of information accessed under the Right to Information (RTI) Act from 28 state information commissions (SICs) and the Central Information Commission (CICs) has found that several SICs were non-functional or were functioning at reduced capacity as the posts of commissioners. While the chief information commissioner of Tripura is non-functional since May 2019, Andhra Pradesh faced a similar situation for 17 months (from May 2017 to October 2018).
Based on 129 RTI pleas filed with the state and Central information commissions, the civil society organization Satark Nagrik Sangathan report titled, ‘Report Cards of Information Commissions 2018-19’, further says that the SICs of Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Rajasthan were functioning without a chief, while the CIC in December 2018 was functioning with just three information commissioners even as eight posts, including that of the chief. The result is, currently, four vacancies persist in CIC, while the pendency has been rising every month and is currently more than 33,000.
The report finds that the SIC of Maharashtra has been functioning with just five information commissioners since early 2019 with nearly 46,000 appeals and complaints pending as of March 31, 2019 with it, while the IC of Odisha is functioning with three commissioners, while more than 11,500 appeals and complaints were pending as of March 31, 2019.
Coming to the backlogs of appeals/complaints in IC, the report says, the number of appeals and complaints pending on March 31, 2019 in the SICs stood at an alarming figure of 2,18,347. The maximum number of appeals/complaints were pending in Uttar Pradesh (52,326) followed by Maharashtra (45,796) and the CIC (29,995).
According to the report, comparative data for these three commissions shows that the number of cases pending increased 20% between March 31, 2018 and March 31, 2019. At the same time, it regrets, the ICs of Bihar, Karnataka and Uttarakhand did not provide requisite information on the backlog of appeals and complaints under the RTI Act. The information was also not available on their websites.
As for the waiting time for disposal of an appeal/complaint, the report says, the SIC of Andhra Pradesh had the longest estimated waiting period of 18 years, followed by West Bengal seven years and five months and Odisha four years and three months.
Examining transparency in the functioning of ICs, assessed in terms of their responsiveness to the RTI pleas filed and whether they were regularly publishing their annual reports as required by the RTI Act, the report says, “Only 12 out of 29 ICs provided full information in response to the RTI applications filed as part of this assessment.”
The report states, despite the RTI Act providing that commissioners should be appointed from diverse backgrounds and fields, an overwhelming majority of information commissioners have been appointed from among retired government servants.
Thus, of the 374 commissioners for whom background information was available, 58% were retired government officials, 15% had a legal or judicial background (11% were advocates or from the judicial service and 4% were retired judges), 9% commissioners had a background in journalism, 5% were educationists (teachers, professors) and 2% were social activists or workers. 
Of the 115 chief information commissioners, for whom data was obtained, an overwhelming 83% were retired government servants, including 64% retired Indian Administrative Service (IAS) officers and another 19% from other services. Of the remainder, 9% had a background in law (5% former judges and 4% lawyers or judicial officers).
The report finds the gender composition of commissions to be extremely skewed. Since the passage of the RTI Act in 2005, merely 10% of all information commissioners across the country have been women. In terms of Chief Information Commissioners, the gender parity is even worse, with less than 7% chiefs being women.
The report also finds that the CIC and the SICs of Gujarat and Chhattisgarh returned a large number of appeals/complaints, without passing any orders, during the period January 2018 to March 31, 2019. The CIC returned a whopping 23,791 appeals/complaints while it registered 28,174 during January 2018 and March 2019. The SIC of Gujarat returned 2,117 cases while it registered 13,534 cases during the period under review.

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