CHRI requests DoPT to issue advisories to State Governments ensuring resumption of work by State Information Commissions

CHRI requests DoPT to issue advisories to State Governments ensuring resumption of work by State Information Commissions

Image courtesy: World bank

June 3, 2020

By:  Shikha Chhibbar, Programme Officer, Access to information

During the first and the second phase of the lockdown imposed by government to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus, CHRI had conducted a Rapid Telephonic Survey of Information Commissions established across India. While the Central Information Commission (CIC) resumed hearings in appeal and complaint cases from 20th April, 2020, its counterparts in the States were not found functional during the first two phases of the lockdown. Findings of the first rapid telephonic survey released on 28th April 2020 can be found here.

At the meeting of the National Federation of Information Commissioners, held on 29th April, 2020 multiple measures for resuming work were identified. The Information Commissioners who took part in the meeting agreed to initiate steps to the best of their abilities with out-of-the-box thinking and innovative measures to be deployed during these troubled times so that the information seeker is provided all possible relief. However, no official advisory from the Department of Personnel and Training (DoPT), Ministry of Personnel, Public Grievances and Pensions, the nodal agency for the Right to Information Act, 2005, was released even after a month.

Following this, CHRI wrote a letter requesting DoPT to issue advisories to the State Governments to ensure resumption of work by the State Information Commissions.  Click here for the copy of CHRI's letter to DoPT submitted on 28th May 2020. The letter was sent along with the findings of CHRI's second Rapid Survey conducted during the third phase of the lockdown and stressed on the indispensable role of Information Commissions during public health emergencies like the COVID-19 pandemic.

Findings from CHRI’s second Rapid Survey:

During the third phase of the lockdown imposed by the government to contain the spread of COVID-19, I did research from the websites of the State Information Commissions (SICs) and made phone calls to their offices as a part of conducting Rapid Survey on their working status. I found that out of the 29 Information Commissions established under The Right to Information Act, 2005 (RTI Act), 12 had opened offices, while only 8 were found conducting hearings during the third phase of the lockdown ending 17th May, 2020. Click here for the survey data of Information Commissions during the first, the second and third phase of the lockdown.

Here is the update on the working status of SICs during the third phase of the lockdown:

  • Based on the website research of various Information commissions, we found that apart from CIC, seven State Information Commissions have started working during the lockdown 3.0. The CIC has allowed hearings from 20th April 2020 for urgent matters through video/audio calls. The SIC of Andhra Pradesh resumed work from 4th May 2020 and started disposing appeals after following strict guidelines for COVID-19 precautions. The SIC of Arunachal Pradesh has begun hearing all cases of appeals and complaints via video conference using Lifesize Video App. According to the cause-list on the Chhattisgarh SIC website, hearings are taking place via video conferencing as well. The Telangana SIC has decided to hear the cases over phone dispensing with the personal appearance of parties.
  • The Punjab SIC and Rajasthan SIC are conducting hearings in matters of utmost urgency pertaining to ‘Life and Liberty’.
  • The SICs of Haryana, Goa, Jharkhand, Karnataka, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal had adjourned the hearings of all RTI cases during the third phase of lockdown until further orders.
  • During the third phase of the lockdown, the SICs of Odisha and Uttarakhand opened their offices only for administrative work but hearings of second appeals and complaints remained adjourned till further notice.
  • CHRI reached out to the office of other SICs because information about their working was not available on their websites. During the third phase of the lockdown, phone calls to the office of SIC of Assam, Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland and Tamil Nadu remained unanswered. Though, during the second phase of the lockdown we were able to get through to the SIC in Tamil Nadu. 
  • In the SIC of Tripura, the woman staff who picked up the call informed that their office is now open with staff on rotation duty in accordance with social distancing guidelines. Yet hearings for cases could not be conducted due to non-appointment of Information Commissioner. Meanwhile, they are admitting appeals and complaints from people and the office of the SIC remains operational. The woman staff said that due to COVID-19 crisis appointment of new Information Commissioner has been delayed, once the Information Commissioner is appointed hearings will resume.
  • In the SIC of Kerala, staff who picked up the call informed that their office has reopened with fewer staff only for administrative purposes. Hearings for all cases were adjourned till 18th May and after that it will be decided when the hearings will start again. Meanwhile, they were only conducting few pending appeal hearings via phone, which were scheduled to be conducted after 13th April but got postponed due to lockdown extension.
  • During the third phase of the lockdown, we learnt from a senior activist from Assam that the SIC was open. However, when we called up the Assam SIC office during working hours of all the three phases of the lockdown, nobody picked up the phone. 
  • In the Sikkim SIC, calls made to landline numbers did not connect repeatedly due to congestion in the network. Then a call was placed to mobile no. of the State Chief Information Commissioner (SCIC) as advertised on the website. Nobody responded to the call during the first round.  When we tried the same number a second time, the staffer heard us out when we explained the purpose of the call and then disconnected the line saying we had called the wrong number.  When we called the third time, the individual who received the call sought to know why we were inquiring about the status of the SIC and whether we had any hearing that had been scheduled. He also said that the phone number belonged “to the judge of the SIC” and that people should not ask him directly about hearings scheduled by the SIC. He then disconnected the call. CHRI did not call again. Our experience with the Sikkim SIC shows that the representatives of the institution are reluctant to share information about their working, let alone resume their mandated duties under the RTI Act. Information Commissions were designed to be more approachable for citizens unlike courts with their high degree of formality of procedure and behaviour. Although the Information Commissioners perform an adjudicatory role, neither the Act nor the case law that has developed over the last 15 years equates them with judges in formal courts. The letter and spirit of the RTI Act requires not only these bodies but also Information Commissioners to be easily approachable. Under the RTI Act, they are the last forum of appeal with regard to the protection, fulfilment and promotion of people’s fundamental right to seek and obtain access to information from government bodies.
  • Six SICs, namely, those of Assam, Bihar, Goa, Rajasthan, Tripura and Uttar Pradesh are headless. The State Chief Information Commissioner's post has remained vacant for several months in these bodies. 
  • The SICs of Bihar and Madhya Pradesh do not have functional websites either. They could not be located through any Internet Browser. The website of the SIC of Nagaland was functional until recently. However, it has become inactive during the lockdown period. Landline number of office of SIC of Bihar is not in the public domain so it cannot be contacted by an ordinary citizen.

Overall, out of total 29 Information Commissions in India, only 12 had reopened their office during the third phase of the lockdown. Out of these, 8 Information Commissions are conducting hearings through phone or video calls for all cases or only for urgent life and liberty matters and 4 SICs have opened the office just for administrative purposes without conducting hearings for the public. Information Commissions of six states were not conducting hearings due to lockdown 3.0 and they had put up notice regarding adjournment of all hearings on their website. Nobody responded to the calls made to the landline numbers of ten SICs during the third phase of the lockdown, nor did they have any information in this regard on their websites. 

The challenges posed by COVID-19 have acted as brakes on the regime of transparency established by the RTI Act. Our rapid survey shows that most of the Information Commissions across the States have abdicated their role as champions of transparency when they are needed the most. As oversight bodies established under the RTI Act, they are the only agency easily accessible to citizens for dealing with complaints of lack of transparency at both micro and macro levels of government action. Given the restrictions on people's movement imposed by the lockdown, this is the time to press governments to comply with their duty of proactive information disclosure emphasised under Section 4 of the RTI Act. 

In all probability, the lockdown and the consequent restrictions are likely to continue for a much longer period. It is important for the SICs to establish a mechanism for receiving inputs from the citizenry about lack of transparency of government action at the State, district, tehsil and village level. In order to do this, it is advisable for them to resume work and advertise widely that they are open to addressing verbal complaints about lack of transparency at various levels of the administration via phone calls or video calls. As the role of Information Commissions during public emergencies is crucial, all SICs can come up with suitable solutions using technology and develop a clear plan of action to resume their role as autonomous bodies for monitoring transparency of public authorities in the course of the current crisis.