Those who were inclined to give the Union government the benefit of the doubt when it claimed last year whilst amending the Right to Information Act that it was not seeking to dilute the provisions of the legislation, must now wonder, looking at the composition of the Central Information Commission, whether their faith was justified.
For after the retirement of Mr Bimal Julka in August, the Commission has now been headless for two months and there is little to suggest that the position will be remedied soon. But even if it is, it is the other vacancies ~ of five of 10 Information Commissioners ~ that must cause alarm.
This is not the first time the Commission has been headless during the NDA regime; the lackadaisical approach to filling up the top post and to keeping other posts vacant has resulted not just in an erosion of the institution but in swelling the list of pending cases, now said to be number more than 36,000. But to reduce the number of adjudicators to half, when that number should have been increased given the increasing use of the Act by citizens, is utterly inexplicable.
This essentially means that the right to information, elevated to the status of a fundamental right by judgments of the apex court, has been severely compromised. When seen in the context of last year’s amendments to the Act that changed the tenure and status of the Commissioners and took State Information Commissions wholly within the fold of the Union government, they suggest a less than benevolent attitude towards a democratic necessity.
This is unhealthy. While delays in the process of appointing a CIC could be explained although only very partially by the outbreak of the coronavirus epidemic and the consequent lockdowns, the shortage of Information Commissioners has been a chronic problem and one that dates to pre-Covid days. If the government is fully committed to the democratic engagement, which it often says it is, it must seek to expand ~ and not restrict ~ the remit of the Act. It must view the right to information as being as vital to accountability and governance as Parliament was envisaged to be.
Instead of aiding efforts at stonewalling information by bureaucrats, it must put in place mechanisms that significantly widen the ambit of suo motu disclosures under the Act. And it must get rid of a mindset that sees a preponderance of retired bureaucrats man posts in the Information Commission, when the Act enjoins it to appoint persons of eminence in public life with knowledge and experience of, in that order, law, science, technology, social service, management, journalism, mass media or administration and governance. Instead, recent events suggest the Act is being viewed as an albatross around the neck of governance.
The citizen’s right to know must be strengthened, not subjected to the contempt of apathy