This week, Central Information Commissioner A N Tiwari was appointed as the Chief CIC to replace Wajahat Habibullah. Since Tiwari is due to retire at the end of the year, we must assume that this is a stop-gap arrangement, and we activists are allowed to keep our hopes alive for more transparent selection of the next batch of Information Commissioners and their Chief.
But it is worth noting that the press and public was kept in the dark about the date and time of the meeting of the Prime Minister's selection committee when Tiwari was selected for this post. This can only be described as a slap in the face of civil society, and an act of thumbing one's nose at the Right to Information Act, which the commissioners are supposed to uphold. However, this comes as no surprise, when one considers past actions, including that of the new Chief CIC himself.
Tiwari was a Secretary to the Government of India, in the Department of Personnel and Training, before becoming an Information Commissioner. In breach of explicit DoPT guidelines, he was the first Secretary who selected himself for the post of Information Commissioner. To improve his own chances as a candidate, A N Tiwari - and later Satyananda Mishra, also a DoPT Secretary . turned a blind eye to many other applications addressed to them, as well as the names of several others who had been nominated. Despite having many eligible candidates, they made the shortlist so short that it reduced the Prime Minister's selecting committee into a mere rubber stamp.
These potential appointees had no way of knowing that the DoPT Secretary, before whom their names were up for consideration, was himself their main competitor. When reached on the phone, Professor Jagdeep Chhokar confirmed that his name had been among those put up for consideration as appointment as CIC, although he had not himself applied. He went on to narrate some of his own observations about the selection process, as below.
"I had applied under the RTI Act (along with Venkatesh Nayak of the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative) to examine the files pertaining to the appointment of Information Commissioners. When I looked through the file, I noticed that names of candidates appear to come out of thin air, literally, with no clear process for gathering them. There are some names of persons who have themselves applied, some names of people who have been nominated by others, and some names suggested by eminent persons.
"The actual process of selection of ICs from among these names is also extremely murky. Some of these names are put up to the selection committee for consideration, and other names are dropped. There is no transparency in deciding which ones are kept and which ones are dropped. It is ironic that this (the CIC) is the body which is charged with ensuring transparent administration throughout the country, while the process of appointment to this body itself is highly non-transparent. This would be hilarious if it were not so tragic in the way it impacts governance."
Professor Chhokar added, "there is a strong parallel to this in politics itself. This is just like the political parties who are always proclaiming the virtues of a democracy, but are themselves totally undemocratic in their internal functioning."
The DoPT (formally the Ministry of Personnel, Public Grievances & Pensions) is a mother ministry to those serving in public administration in the Central services. It is in charge of their placements. As such, the Secretary in this Department occupies a sacred position of trust, and is charged with ensuring that public administration in the country remains accessible and transparent to citizens through proper appointments and subsequent oversight. The actions of Tiwari and Mishra give no confidence to citizens that they remember that trust, let alone respect it. (Satyananda Mishra did one better than Tiwari. While he was Secretary, DoPT, he used his position to campaign for appointment of more Information Commissioners, to handle the workload. Within two months, he was himself appointed as a CIC!)
To compound their violation of trust (or more likely, to conceal it) thes Prime Minister's Office and DoPT officials then hid papers pertaining to these appointments from RTI applicants. Chief Information Commissioner Wajahat Habibullah defended such concealment of documents with strange reasoning and self-contradictory statements, including the claim that it was discretionary upon the part of the PMO and DoPT to share the relevant documents with the applicants. (see more here.)
Are such arbitrary and unlawful selections to Information Commissions and other national commissions happening because of absence of norms? Until now, many activists believed that this was the case. But recently, it has come to light that this is not so - these violations go on in spite of clear norms and procedures for search and selection of candidates. Read these two well-known DoPT circulars:
DoPT has laid out these guidelines for Central Government departments. So why can't it practice what it preaches? It is absolutely important that when
a more tenured Chief CIC is appointed at the end of the year, it will be someone who is chosen by a widely known process, and using criteria that are
clearly spelled out to the public interest.