'Over 34k appeals pending before short-staffed CIC'

Over 34,000 appeals pending before headless, short-staffed CIC: Activists

In the absence of any new appointments, there are only six information commissioners in the commission as against the total strength of 11, including a chief information commissioner, according to the Right to Information (RTI) Act, they said.

Over 34,000 appeals and complaints are pending before the Central Information Commission, the country's highest adjudicator in RTI matters, which is facing a staff crunch and is headless after its chief Sudhir Bhargava retired last week, activists said on Wednesday.

In the absence of any new appointments, there are only six information commissioners in the commission as against the total strength of 11, including a chief information commissioner, according to the Right to Information (RTI) Act, they said.

"Chief Information Commissioner Sudhir Bhargava retired on January 11, 2020. It was a routine retirement and his date of retirement was known from the time Bhargava took over as the chief. Despite this the government failed to appoint the next chief information commissioner in a timely manner and has allowed the CIC to become headless," activist Anjali Bhardwaj of Satark Nagrik Sangathan said.

Bhardwaj and Commodore Lokesh Batra (retd) had approached the Supreme Court seeking directions to fill vacancies in information commissions across the country, including the Central Information Commission (CIC).

In February 2019, the Supreme Court had directed the government to fill vacancies in information commissions without delay by initiating the process of appointment one to two months prior to the date on which the vacancy is occurring to minimise the time lag.

"On the directions of the Supreme Court, even though an advertisement was issued inviting applications for four vacancies in January 2019, these have not been filled till date," Bhardwaj said.

Another public interest litigation (PIL) was filed before the Supreme Court in September 2019 following non-compliance of its order.

In its order dated December 16, 2019, the top court directed the government to place in the public domain the names of the search committee and complete the process of appointments within three months.

"Since May 2014, every time the chief information commissioner has retired there has been a gap (of up to nine months) between the retirement of the incumbent and the appointment of the new chief and people have had to approach the courts to compel the government to fill the vacancy," Bhardwaj and Amrita Johri, another activist, said in a statement.

Activist Lokesh Batra pointed out the growing number of pending appeals and complaints which are affecting the working of the CIC.

"The pendency of cases is 34,347 according to the CIC website on January 15, 2020, at 8 am. The commission has again gone headless after Bhargava's retirement. This is not new with the government since 2014 as transparency appears to be the last priority for the government. It is like killing the RTI," he said.

Venkatesh Nayak of Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative said the problem of pending cases will worsen as those from the newly created Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir will also come to the CIC, as intended by the Department of Personnel and Training.

He said no information has been put out by the government in the public domain on whether the process for appointing the new chief information commissioner has begun, which is a violation of the Supreme Court order.

Nayak said it takes nearly eight months to one year before an appeal or a complaint comes up for hearing before the CIC because of the pendency of cases and this time will rise further in the wake of vacancies of information commissioners.

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