There is need for well-meaning activists to promptly apply in large numbers for the posts of State and Central Information Commissioners. For too long now, these positions have been handed out to retiring bureaucrats only, who neither understand nor endorse transparency. As a result, the changes in governance that we hoped to see from the RTI Act are yet to emerge fully. By entering the system ourselves that we can change it faster - from the inside.

If citizens and civil society activists apply to get into these posts, there will be many benefits. Firstly, there will be pressure on the system to appoint some good candidates from civil society to these posts, which is absent now. Since no one else is applying for these jobs, the government has not been forced to consider non-bureaucrats, and this has resulted in a cozy 'jobs for the boys' system of appointments. Second, to cope with the large numbers of candidates from civil society, the government will be forced to introduce proper criteria and procedures for shortlisting candidates. Such criteria are hugely important for these posts, but thus far there has been no clear basis on which the appointments are carried out.

And finally, if the government arbitrarily ignores our names and selects its own people without due procedure, eligibility criteria etc. - as it is currently doing - we will have the locus standi to go to court with writ petitions against such appointments. There is a good chance of convincing the Courts that appointing bureaucrats alone to such public service oversight roles is in violation of the Constitution and the RTI Act itself.

The ultimate objective of all this, of course, is to improve the performance of public administration by bringing it in line with the pressures and expectations of the RTI Act. While a number of my friends and fellow RTI travelers have understood this, there have also been a few questions about the efficacy and appropriateness of applying for the posts of commissioners. I would like to address these questions.

  • By asking everybody to apply, are you not demeaning the post of Information Commissioner?

    No, we are not demeaning the post, and here are two reasons why. Firstly, the procedures so far adopted by the Central Government and various State Governments for the Information Commissioners are already demeaning the post. There is absolutely no transparency. Chamchas are clearly getting posted as Information Commissioners without any consideration for what is intended by the RTI Act, and what is required for promoting the citizens' sacred right to get timely and accurate information.

    Many of those who are currently Information Commissioners are motivated by love of power and privilege, rank of Chief Secretary, salary and perquisites etc., rather than any desire to serve the people or the cause of RTI.

     •  Jobs for the boys
     •  Righting the RTI
     •  Preparing for the future

    Many of those who are currently Information Commissioners are motivated by love of power and privilege, rank of Chief Secretary, salary and perquisites etc., rather than any desire to serve the people or the cause of RTI. Many of these CICs and SICs lack a basic understanding of the the RTI Act, leave alone the desire to properly enforce it. Many of these don't even have the intellectual capacity to understand the Act. When seen in this context, our act of applying civilly for the post and making it public that we have applied, is not at all demeaning to the post.

    Secondly, the main intention of this campaign is to ensure that some filtering process will be put in place to ensure that ineligible candidates are not selected. Hence, even if some of us might consider ourselves ineligible, our applying is crucial to ensure that the selection process is robust enough to identify and filter out different inadequacies of candidates. By large numbers of us sending in applications, we shall "stress test" the system to ensure that the best procedures are in place.

  • Won't some of those who are applying start running after power and go to any lengths to become Information Commissioners?

    Some might. We can't be sure that they won't. But, even in the absence of this campaign, nothing stops such people from applying on their own. Those with such intentions will probably already have applied, and will be lobbying for these posts. This campaign is meant to encourage large numbers of people to apply so that it puts pressure on the government to disregard unhealthy lobbying. Our campaign is for transparency and a systematic procedure in appointments, so that everything will be out in the open and private lobbying will be futile.

  • Is there any point in asking those who are obviously ineligible people to apply? For example, a person Mr. X who is a non-matriculate, but has vast experience in social work and is therefore an eminent citizen as required by section 12(5)?

    Yes. There is. The existing process does not have anything which enables the government to legally ignore 'ineligible' people. The terms of section 12(5) like 'eminent', 'wide knowledge and experience' etc. are vague and need to be fleshed out with proper rules. When Mr. X applies, the government will be forced to come up with rules such as, 'The Information Commissioner should have at least completed graduation' or 'Information Commissioner should be fluent in English and the Official State language'. Every such 'ineligible' application will challenge the government to formulate proper criteria.

  • All that is fine ... but not for me. I think I am ineligible and hence it would be arrogant of me to apply.

    We are not asking you to be arrogant. This is a sincere attempt to bring in transparency and procedure into the appointment of the people who are supposed to uphold transparency. The hope is that such a large number of applications for these posts will force the government to take steps towards such transparency and due procedure. By applying for the post of Information Commissioners, you would only be playing a small but significant role as a concerned citizen. Nothing arrogant in that!

  • Why? Why now?

    RTI Act Section 12(5) and 15(5) make it clear that the post of Information Commissioner is primarily for civil society. This post is currently being hijacked by retired bureaucrats only because members of civil society are not applying! This is clearly compromising the correct enforcement of our sacred Right to Information.

    All the Chief Information Commissioners of States and Centre, and a large number of Information Commissioners, will retire in 2010, having completed their five-year term. Many vacancies will open up this year and next year. We must act now to ensure that members of civil society become Information Commissioners in the next round of appointments. It is equally important to ensure that all such appointments ? even those of former bureaucrats - happen through a transparent procedure, and not according to the favours of ministers and top bureaucrats.

I hope each of you will take this opportunity, and apply to be an Information Commissioner in your state, as and when the spots open up. Currently, there are spots open in Maharashtra, Punjab, Orissa and Tamilnadu, in addition to the Central Information Commission too. Please also pass this article around, especially to those you think would do a fine job at commissioners.