Are the posts of Information Commissioners turning into political rehabilitation centres? The trend of appointing persons with close political affiliation with the ruling party as information commissioners is continuing in Andhra Pradesh, despite the Supreme Court’s ruling in the past against such appointments.
RTI activists have raised objections over the recent appointment of R Srinivasa Rao, who is associated with the ruling YSR Congress Party, as the state information commissioner. Under the RTI Act, persons with political affiliation are not eligible for the post. Members of the United Forum for RTI Campaign (UFRTI) in Andhra Pradesh have pointed out that Rao’s appointment reflected a blatant violation of the provisions of the RTI Act.
Section 15 (5) of the RTI Act states that the Chief Information Commissioner and the State Information Commissioners must be “persons of eminence in public life with wide knowledge and experience in law, science and technology, social service, management, journalism, mass media or administration and governance”.
It also specifies that none of the Commissioners can be “a Member of Parliament or Member of the Legislature of any state or Union territory or hold any other office of profit or be connected with any political party or carry on any business or pursue any profession”.
Ironically, while in the opposition, the YSR Congress had vehemently opposed some of the candidates appointed during the then TDP government on the ground that they were close to the ruling party. It’s just a role reversal now.
The RTI activists have accused the YSRCP government of virtually converting the information commission into a political rehabilitation centre.
In a letter addressed to the Chief Minister YS Jagan Mohan Reddy, the founder member of UFRTI Campaign-AP, and co-convenors Chakradhar Bhuddha, Emmanuel Dasari, Srinivas Goud and Chalapati pointed out that the decision to appoint Rao was ‘arbitrary and illegal and in violation of the provisions of Section 15 (3) (5) and (6) of the RTI Act of 2005.
They appealed to the high-power committee empowered to appoint the commissioners to consider people from civil society, journalism and social activists for the post.
Former Union energy secretary and noted environmental activist EAS Sarma has questioned the propriety of appointing civil servants as RTI commissioners. “What will they do, if they are called upon to adjudicate on the disclosure of information relating to the respective departments in which they had served in the past?” he wondered.
Two new appointments were made to the State Information Commission last week by the Governor Biswabhusan Harichandan. This was based on recommendations from the selection committee headed by the Chief Minister. Apart from Srinivasa Rao, a retired IAS officer P Ramesh Kumar was appointed as the State Chief Information Commissioner.
With this, the strength of the Commission has gone up to six. The RTI activists argue that while the new appointments were much needed to help speed up the process of dealing with pending cases with the Commission, the appointment of Rao was a clear violation of the Act as he was affiliated with the ruling party in Piduguralla town of Guntur district.
In early May last year, the then TDP government’s proposal to appoint two candidates — Ilapuram Raja and Eerla Sriramamurthy — had triggered a similar row as they had close ties with the ruling party.
The YSR Congress, which was in the opposition, had vehemently spoken against the politicisation of the Information Commission. Senior party leader Vijayasai Reddy had even written to then Chief Secretary LV Subrahmanyam to intervene in the matter.
Following pressure, Sriramamurthy’s name was finally dropped but the other nominee Ilapuram Raja, a hotelier and son of former MLC of TDP Ilapuram Venkaiah, was allowed to continue in the post.
According to Section 15 (3) of the RTI Act, the appointments to the Commission must be recommended by a committee consisting of the Chief Minister, the Leader of Opposition and a Cabinet Minister nominated by the Chief Minister. However, Leader of Opposition N Chandrababu Naidu abstained from the meeting where the names of Srinivasa Rao and P Ramesh Kumar were finalised.
This is not the first time that the choice of candidates for the post has set off a political controversy. The high court of the combined Andhra Pradesh had quashed the appointment of four information commissioners in 2013 when Congress was in power. This was due to their association with the ruling party.
According to the ‘Report Card of Information Commissions in India, 2018-19’, released by the Satark Nagrik Sangathan (SSN) and the Centre for Equity Studies (CES), 40 and 60 lakh RTI applications are filed every year but less than 45 per cent of the RTI applicants received the information they had sought from the government departments.
As of March 31, 2019, there were 2.18 lakh appeals and complaints pending before the State Information Commissions (SICs). The study revealed that it took an average of more than a year for most of the SICs to dispose of complaints/appeals.