Dear fellow RTI Activists,
Please sit up and take notice. We are like frogs in a pan of water that is being slowly heated to the boiling point. Only because it is a creeping change, we are not jumping out. We are in a crisis already.
Over the past few months, a number of states have appointed no new State Information Commissioners (SICs). At end-2009, there were around 106 SICs. Today, there are only around 80. This is a drop of about 25% in two years. Most of this drop has happened in the last six months!
This fall in numbers has disproportionately impacted the working of those state information commissions, for reasons that we will explain later. It is estimated that pendency figures are up 150% on an all-India basis in these two years. In Andhra Pradesh, the pendency figure has doubled in one single year. In many states, cases being heard today were filed in 2008.
SIX STATES CRIPPLED BY RETIRING INFORMATION COMMISSIONERS:
1. ANDHRA PRADESH has had no new appointments after three information commissioners retired in 2010. For the last one year, there is only one chief state information commissioner, and the pendency has doubled in the last one year — from 4000 in November 2010, it is today 8000. This state boasted four information commissioners in 2009-10.
2. MAHARASHTRA today has only five information commissioners, including one acting chief, who is about to retire. Four have ended their tenure at various points of 2011, and the last of them was Navin Kumar, four months ago. There are no new appointments so far. In January 2011, the queue of pendency was 12,000 cases. In September, it had risen to 18,000 cases. Currently, information commission staff reckons that it is around 20,000, and rising at 2-3,000 cases every month.
3. JHARKHAND, which had seven Information Commissioners in July 2011, now has only one.
4. RAJASTHAN had two Information Commissioners, including one chief. When the chief retired in mid 2011, the entire commission stopped functioning for four months. The remaining commissioner was appointed as Chief only in mid-October. No new appointments have been made. Pendency is over 12,000.
5. GUJARAT had three information commissioners until July. Now, there is only one — the chief.
6. TAMIL NADU used to have seven information commissioners until last year. Now there are only three. Three appointments were stayed in 2010 by the High Court after they were challenged for lack of due procedure.
The same story is being repeated in many other states. If you wish to enquire about other states, here are the CONTACT DETAILS OF OVER 80 ACTIVISTS attended Arvind Kejriwal’s meeting in Delhi at the beginning of 2010, to discuss the problems of their respective State Information Commissions: http://tinyurl.com/List-82-RTI-Activist-all-India
State governments are now dragging their feet in appointments – either because they are feeling the heat of RTI, or because they feel under pressure to select information commissioners by a proper process. (A notable exception is Uttar Pradesh, where Chief Minister Mayawati has been merrily appointing her cronies as information commissioners, and is completely unafraid of RTI.)
This list indicates that there were around 106 information commissioners in 27 states in 2009.
And compare this with the list made a few days back by C J Karira, super-moderator of India’s foremost RTI discussion forum, RTIIndia.org. He got his facts meticulously by calling up each State Information Commission, and this survey indicates that the number of commissioners has dropped to 80: http://tinyurl.com/SICs-Overview-CJKarira
WHY PENDENCY IS SHOOTING UP IN MANY STATES:
a) HEARINGS, NO ORDERS: As the earlier batch of Information Commissioners retired upon completion of the five-year tenure, or attaining age 65, many of them did not dictate the orders of the cases that they had heard. Thus, they left behind a lot of confusion, and cases to be re-heard. This process continues, and things are getting worse.
b) BAD RECORD KEEPING: Record-keeping practices in information commissions are terrible. Although information commissions are quasi-judicial forums, no judicial officers are appointed as SICs or their secretariat staff. So filing and records maintenance is done in the same way as administrative offices, which is not good enough. So the newcomers find it difficult to pick up where their predecessors left off.
c) CHRONIC UNDERSTAFFING & LACK OF BUDGETS. The chief information commissioners have no direct control over staffing. Their state governments are deliberately not giving them adequate staff. Many information commissioners don’t have either English language or local language stenographers and typists, and are forced to type out their own orders, which reduces their productivity.
d) INFORMATION COMMISSIONERS RECEIVE NO TRAINING OR ORIENTATION in doing their job as per Sec. 18 and 19 of Right to Information Act. They have neither background nor training in court-like procedures, office administration etc. They have no understanding of how to apply the RTI Act to the cases that they hear. Many of them have poorer understanding of RTI Act 2005 than the appellants and public information officers (PIOs) appearing before them. So newcomers have a very long learning curve, and depend entirely on their staff and the appellants to show them the ropes and teach them the law.
e) POOR WORK ETHICS: Almost all of them are political appointees, who have no intention to put in an honest day’s work at the information commission. Many of them are retired bureaucrats, who consider this job as a kind of post-retirement benefit from their grateful political masters. They come to office around noon, and take long lunch breaks as well.
f) TOO MANY UNNECESSARY HEARINGS: In some states, information commissions are going the way of the judiciary. Instead of holding one or two hearings and then dictating the order, states like UP and Orissa have commissioners who take 10-15 hearings per case, and still don’t give meaningful orders.
The queue of pending cases has already reached a critical point. In many State Information Commissions, matters of 2008 or 2009 are being heard i.e. a lag of 2-3 years. The usefulness of the second appeal mechanism is becoming questionable, because the apex bodies of RTI i.e. Information Commissions, are slowly becoming useless.
Friends, the water is too hot already. Please don’t stay calm and quiet while the RTI movement gets boiled to death. Now is a good time to press the panic button.
WHOSE RESPONSIBILITY IS IT? The Prime Minister’s.
The apex body for implementation of RTI Act 2005 is DOPT (Department of Personnel and Training), Personnel Ministry, which is directly under the Prime Minister. Therefore, like many other things, the buck stops with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh for not laying down a clear mandate to the various state governments, and not setting up a monitoring system. Mr Prime Minister, Sir, are you listening? Please do something quick!
IMPORTANT NOTE: The websites of almost all State Information Commissions (and Central Information Commission) is not updated for months or even years. Please don’t rely on these websites for current figures on information commissioners and other statistics. Instead, ask the local RTI activists to personally contact the information commission staff and find out.