Wednesday, November 18, 2009

PRESS RELEASE on RTI issues from Arvind Kejriwal and other RTI activists

Delhi, India

A large number of RTI activists from the country including convenors of state RTI forums of MP, Bihar, West Bengal, AP, TN, Orissa, Delhi, Gujarat, J & K, Punjab, Haryana, Manipur and Maharashtra have written to the Prime Minister, Mrs Sonia Gandhi and Mr Lal Krishna Advani demanding that the next Chief Information Commissioner be appointed through a transparent, inclusive and participatory process.

Since the last two days, several names are floating around as being in consideration list of DOPT. Intense lobbying is believed to be going on for these posts. “How did these names make it to that list? Who lobbied for whom? Why were some names found less suitable and others more suitable?” – the letter sought to know from the government. Such secret, unholy and unhealthy lobbying “weakens democracy and promotes godfather culture.”

“The least the government ought to do is to fulfill its obligations under section 4 of RTI Act, which requires every public authority to make public the reasons for all its administrative and quasi-judicial decisions public. Kindly disclose the names on the final consideration list. Which names were received by the government from across the country? In addition to Kiran Bedi, we understand that the Government has received candidature of at least 100 people. How were some of them found suitable and others unsuitable?”

“Would you not agree that these posts have so far been used to reward political loyalists and conformists? Take the case of Omita Paul, who has been on the staff of Mr Pranab Mukherjee for several years. Before last elections, the government sought special permission from Election Commission and appointed her as Information Commissioner. As soon as UPA came back to power, she resigned and joined the minister back, in less than two months of being appointed as Information Commissioner. Obviously, her appointment as Information Commissioner neither served public interest nor promoted the cause of RTI.”

The letter alleged that the Information Commissions had completely bureaucratized RTI. The problem lies with the appointment process. The law prescribes an appointing committee but does not lay down any appointment process. Ordinarily, such process should have been laid down in the rules. However, no rules have been made prescribing how the nominations/applications would be invited, how they would be evaluated, how would the shortlists be drawn up etc. This has created a scope for complete arbitrariness and unholy lobbying.

The Act lays down a wide eligibility criterion – Information Commissioners shall be persons of “eminence” in public life. A perusal of the list of Information Commissioners makes one wonder how was this criterion of “eminence” examined? People who worked in PMO have been appointed as Information Commissioners. Government’s spokespersons have been appointed. Two DOPT secretaries have been appointed as Information Commissioners.

In some states, active party workers have been appointed as Information Commissioners. During hearings, they openly threaten people against seeking politically embarrassing information. One Chief Information Commissioner has worked with the present Chief Minister of that state for more than a decade. Several Chief Secretaries and Secretaries have been appointed as Information Commissioners. Last year, one State Chief Commissioner was suspended on corruption charges. His successor has recently been fined heavily by High Court for wrongdoings committed by him during his previous appointment. Given their backgrounds, political loyalties and direct conflict of interest, how can one expect them to safeguard the citizens’ rights vis a vis the powerful Establishment?

Information obtained under RTI Act shows that those who have to be appointed are pre-decided. If there are two vacancies, four names are presented on file out of which two are dummies.

Compare this with the process adopted by Indonesia. They have just finished appointing 7 new information commissioners. The posts were widely publicized in 5 national dailies. Out of 330 applications received, 243 were screened in. Public feedback was invited on these 243 names through website and newspaper advertisements. NGOs actively participated by tracking down the pasts of candidates and feeding it to a search committee (specially appointed by the government for this purpose with representatives from within and outside government). These 243 candidates were also subjected to psychological and written tests. On the basis of these inputs, the search committee suggested 21 candidates for seven posts to the House. A Parliamentary committee then subjected these 21 candidates to two days of grueling interviews, conducted in full public view, and finally sent seven names for appointments to the President.

South Africa also follows a similar process.

There is no reason why we cannot make our process similarly transparent, inclusive and participatory. This process could of course be modified through wider consultations, to suit Indian conditions, should the government decide to adopt such a process. You don’t need to amend RTI Act for that. You can do it by making rules.”

In separate letter to L K Advani, the activists asked “Would you not like to first have the government put transparent and inclusive systems in place by prescribing necessary rules? In the absence of such process, the role of Leader of Opposition in appointing committee gets reduced to merely endorsing whatever government proposes in the committee. Till such time as the government makes such rules, we urge you not to attend any of the meetings of appointing committee to approve any further appointments to the posts of Information Commissioners as has been happening in a completely arbitrary fashion in the past.”

The activists have called upon UPA President Mrs Sonia Gandhi to personally intervene.

Please click for letters-

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