Right to Information: The Central Information Commission’s Leadership Crisis and India’s Democratic Test

Right to Information: The Central Information Commission’s Leadership Crisis and India’s Democratic Test


11 October 2023

by Prema Sridevi

Amid the challenges facing the Right to Information Act, the CIC grapples with recurring leadership vacancies and a growing backlog of cases, raising concerns over India's commitment to transparency and accountability.

The Central Information Commission (CIC), once revered as a guardian of transparency, finds itself wading through turbulent waters. Established under the Right to Information Act in 2005, this statutory body was a beacon of hope for countless citizens. Its primary role: to address the grievances of individuals unable to procure information from Central or State Public Information Officers. However, as with many institutions in the throes of bureaucracy, the effectiveness of the CIC seems to have dwindled over time. 

Right to Information crisis

The tenure of the last Chief Information Commissioner, Yashovardhan Kumar Sinha, concluded on October 3rd. Yet, as days roll on, a new CIC remains conspicuously absent. Such a void, especially at the helm of a commission tasked with ensuring transparency and accountability, paints a rather unsettling picture. Not just that, recent trends point towards an alarming and recurrent administrative oversight that cannot be dismissed as mere coincidence. This is for the fifth time since August 22, 2014, the CIC is headless. This isn’t just an unfortunate lapse; it’s a concerning pattern.

It’s not just about a vacant chair or a silent office; the ongoing situation at the Central Information Commission (CIC) echoes a more profound dissonance in our administrative machinery. Sources from within have painted a concerning picture about how the headquarters functions— routine administrative decisions remain unresolved, and a tangible sense of inertia has set in. 

Back in 2018, Prime Minister Narendra Modi inaugurated the new, swanky headquarters of the CIC at Baba Gangnath Marg in Munirka, New Delhi. Crores of taxpayers money was spent on the grand building but today not only is the CIC position vacant, but the office, which should be bustling with at least ten information commissioners, is operating with a skeletal staff. With just four commissioners—Suresh Chandra, Heeralal Samariya, Saroj Punhani, and Uday Mahurkar. 

The current state of affairs at the CIC isn’t just a story of vacancies; it’s a narrative about India’s commitment to transparency, accountability, and good governance. Every day that the CIC functions below its capacity is a day when countless RTI appeals might go unanswered, a day when the public’s right to know is inadvertently curtailed.

It’s alarming that from the 256 applications received for the role of Information Commissioner last December, not a single appointment has been finalised. What’s even more concerning is that the tenure of the current four information commissioners is drawing to a close this November. If no action is taken, India may witness a historically unprecedented scenario where the CIC operates without any Chief Information Commissioner or Information Commissioners. Rapid, last-minute appointments, however, pose another danger. If the government succumbs to the pressures of time and hastily fills these roles without due diligence, there’s a risk of unworthy individuals occupying pivotal positions.

“There’s been a noticeable decline in the responsiveness of RTI requests lately. Decisions that were once prompt now suffer delays, making it increasingly challenging to extract information through the Right to Information Act. Adding to this concern is the issue of vacant leadership positions. Since the current government took office, it has failed to proactively appoint a Chief Information Commissioner before the vacancy sets in. This lack of leadership has tangible repercussions. Several administrative and financial decisions are on hold,” says RTI activist Commodore Lokesh Batra.

Commodore Batra received a response to his recent RTI application regarding the vacancies. The Department of Personnel and Training (DoPT) disclosed that a total of 76 applications were received in response to their advertisement for the CIC’s position. Four late applications were also received. 

In the RTI response, the DoPT also enumerated the selection process. Upon the receipt of applications, the DoPT undertakes the task of tabulating particulars, which are then shuttled to a Search Committee. Notably, this committee is constituted by the Prime Minister and is chaired by the Cabinet Secretary. Once the names are curated and shortlisted, they are sent to the Prime Minister. The selected member is then appointed by the President of India.

Venkatesh Nayak, Director at the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, has trained over 6,000 government officers and more than 600 executives from public sector enterprises on implementing the Right to Information Act. He believes the primary concern lies in the CIC selection process. “From the outset, when the decision was made about the selection committee being dominated by the government, we raised objections. It’s essential to have either the Chief Justice of India or a sitting judge of the Supreme Court as the third member. This inclusion will ensure the selection process isn’t solely under government control. How can one expect an individual selected by a government-dominated panel to provide information to the public that may be against the government’s interests?” he asks.

Nayak further mentions a marked preference for retired government officials during the selection process. “There is limited representation from civil society members, experts, or other stakeholders. The government tends to favour retired officials since they are familiar figures and easier to influence. The underlying motive seems to be to choose individuals with a conservative stance on Right to Information and transparency,” Nayak adds.

The figures, as they stand on October 5, 2023, are far from comforting. A staggering 20,634 cases lie in limbo at the Central Information Commission (CIC). The situation at the state level echoes this federal backlog. Maharashtra’s Chief Minister, Ekanth Shinde, recently laid bare the state’s predicament in the legislative council. Over 1 lakh second appeals have been gathering dust in the State Information Commission’s offices as of May 2023. That’s a six-figure backlog in just one of India’s 28 states.

But the challenges aren’t limited to just sheer volume. Some states grapple with an even more fundamental problem: functionality. Take Jharkhand, for instance. Here, thousands of RTI applications await their day in the spotlight. Yet, there’s a catch. The statutory body meant to oversee these applications has been in a dormant state, eerily silent for about three years. Ever since the last information commissioner wrapped up his tenure in 2020, the body has been rendered defunct.

In 2014, TY Das, who served as the Secretary at the CIC, penned a pointed letter to the union government, drawing attention to a pressing concern. Addressing the Secretary of the DoPT, Das emphasised the critical role of Information Commissioners in the expeditious disposal of cases. Her message was both clear and urgent: vacancies must be filled swiftly to ensure the uninterrupted processing of cases. In response, Rajiv Mathur was appointed as the Chief Information Commissioner, succeeding Sushma Singh. However, a mere three months later in August 2014, the position was once again vacant. Since then, these vacancies have repeatedly occurred, including the current period.

“To understand the impact, one must examine the volume of pending RTI applications in the country. Whenever a vacancy is anticipated, a list should be made available to everyone well in advance. The selection process should also commence way ahead of time,” says Das.

The repeated vacancies in the Central Information Commission, combined with the staggering backlog of cases, present not just administrative challenges but a more profound crisis of democratic values. If the Right to Information Act is to retain its transformative power, the imperatives are clear: swift and unbiased appointments, a transparent and inclusive selection process, and an unwavering commitment to the ethos of the Act. It’s time for a course correction; our democracy deserves no less. Read More