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SC pulls up state govts for 'choking' peoples' right to know: Info Commission vacancies

By Anjali Bhardwaj, Commodore Lokesh Batra (Retd), Amrita Johri*

On August 18, 2021, a petition regarding delay in appointment of information commissioners under the RTI Act was heard by the Supreme Court. The bench of Justices S. Abdul Nazeer and Krishna Murari heard the matter. During the hearing, it was pointed out that despite the judgment of the SC, the Union of India and several states had failed to fill the vacancies in the information commission leading to a large number of pending cases and long delays in the disposal of appeals/complaints.
The SC expressed displeasure at the failure of the states to fill vacancies and warned of strict action against non-compliance with its directions (the issues with respect to vacancies in the Central Information Commission were not taken up today due to the unavailability of the counsel).

Maharashtra

It was pointed out that in its February 2019 judgment the SC had directed state of Maharashtra to ensure that the information commission functions at full strength (1 Chief and 10 information commissioners) given the large backlog of appeals and complaints. However, as on date the commission is functioning with only 4 commissioners even though the pendency as of May 31, 2021 stood at more than 75,000 appeals/complaints. The bench pulled up the State of Maharahstra for not filling the vacancies of State Information Commission and warned that the Chief Secretary will be summoned if the state fails to fill the vacancies within 3 weeks.

Karnataka

In its 2019 judgment, given the large pendency, the SC had directed that the State Information Commission (SIC) should function at full strength for which the government must sanction all posts. Whereas the state sanctioned all posts, however, in the hearing it was pointed out that currently 3 posts are vacant even though there is backlog of more than 30,000 appeals/complaints in the commission. The SC directed the state to fill vacancies and file a status report.

Odisha

In the 2019 judgment, the SC had directed the state of Odisha to sanction 3 additional posts so the commission can function with 1 Chief and 6 commissioners given the backlog of cases. In the hearing it emerged that the state had sanctioned only 2 additional posts and currently the commission was functioning with only 4 commissioners. One post had fallen vacant in November 2020 and was yet to be filled up while the Chief had retired on 15.8.2021. The SC directed the government to file a status report.

Telangana

In the hearing it was pointed out that the SIC of Telangana has been functioning without a Chief for one year, despite the fact that the RTI Act envisages a crucial role for the Chief as the general superintendence, direction and management of the affairs of the SIC vests in the Chief. The SC expressed disappointment at the state of affairs and directed that the appointment should be made by the next date of hearing.

Nagaland

It was highlighted that in the case of the SIC of Nagaland the previous Chief retired in January 2020 and since then no new Chief has been appointed. As a result, for 19 months, the commission has been headless. The state was directed to fill the vacancy and file a status report.

West Bengal

In its February 2019 judgment, the SC directed government of West Bengal to create three posts of commissioners in addition to the sanctioned strength of 3 (Chief and 2 information commissioners). During the hearing it was pointed out that currently the commission is functioning with only 2 commissioners (1 Chief and 1 commissioner) though nearly 10,000 appeals/complaints are pending before it. The SC pulled up the state government for failing to file an affidavit before the hearing and for not filling the vacancies.

Jharkhand

Whereas government of Jharkhand was not a respondent in the case, however it was pointed out that the condition viz the information commission is alarming as it has been effectively rendered defunct since May 2020, when the lone information commissioner retired. Since then no information commissioner or Chief has been appointed and the commission has been non functional with people seeking information from public authorities under the jurisdiction of the Jharkhand SIC having no recourse to the independent appellate mechanism prescribed under the RTI Act. The SC expressed anguish at the current state of affairs and directed the state to fill vacancies and also file a report.
The matter with regard to the CIC will now be heard next week while state governments have been given 3 weeks to file status reports indicating the vacancies in the respective SIC and the number of appeals/complaints pending.
The petitioners were represented by advocate Prashant Bhushan and Rahul Gupta.
The affidavit filed by the petitioners in August 2021 can be accessed here
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*Petitioners

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