Many RTI Activists went blue in the face asking the Prime Minister's Office (PMO) and the Department of Personnel and Training (DoPT) what process they have followed for selecting Central Information Commissioners, the highest appellate authorities in the RTI regime. The activists were stonewalled with assertions that selections were as per Section 12(5) of the RTI Act. But that was a blatant lie.

The section reads, "The Chief Information Commissioner and Information Commissioners shall 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." Given the range of issues brought before the information commissioners, it is important that they be drawn from the widest section of society, and that is why the Act lays down this criterion for their selection.

But the actual appointments don't reflect this breadth at all. Look at the biodatas and appointment dates of the Information Commissioners at the CIC website, and mentally join the dots. The truth that emerges is: "The CIC's post is yours for the asking if you are an IAS officer aged around 60, and have worked with PMO, DoPT or I&B ministry. Other cadres like IPS etc. may also be considered. Civil society members - eminent or otherwise - are last preference."

First, look at the striking similarities of age. Everybody was almost exactly 60 years old when they took oath as CIC! Wajahat Habibullah took oath in October 2005, when he was 60 years and 1 month old. Mrs Padma Balasubramanian, O P Kejriwal, A N Tiwari and M M Ansari were appointed along with him. A N Tiwari was aged 59 years 10 months at the time of appointment. Satyanand Mishra (59 years 7 months old), Mrs Annapurna Dixit (60 years 3 months), M L Sharma (59 years 5 months) and Shailesh Gandhi (61 years 2 months) took oath in September 2008.

Mrs Deepak Sandhu and Mrs Sushma Singh took oath in September 2009, respectively aged 60 years 9 months, and 60 years 4 months. Mrs Omita Paul was administered oath in May '09, aged 60 years 6 months.

Not only were the appointees almost all IAS officers with very similar backgrounds, they were also almost exactly 60 years old at the time of appointment. The conclusion that this is a career extension for public officials alone is inescapable.

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Padma Balasubramanian and O P Kejariwal retired in Dec '08 and Feb '09 respectively, upon reaching 65 years of age. Clearly, DoPT is at work, selecting bureaucrats for the CIC's post to optimize their working lives. IAS officers retire from government service at 60, and posts like the Central and State Information Commissioners are needed for their continued employment! When faced with such practical necessities, the idealistic requirements of Section 12(5) and civil society will go for a toss, boss!

There were two exceptions. Prof M M Ansari - an academician - was sworn in as CIC at the tender age of 53 years 3 months. He, along with Shailesh Gandhi, an entrepreneur and RTI Activist, are the only ones with a civil society background. And there were two borderline cases. M L Sharma is a former IPS officer. Padma Balasubramanian had an Indian Postal Service background. Except for these four, all CICs have PMO, DOPT and Information & Broadcasting ministry writ large on their biodatas.

Now look at the astonishing career similarities in the CVs of the other Central Information Commissioners.

  • A N Tiwari and Satyananda Mishra were both DoPT Secretaries before becoming Information Commissioner. The interesting thing is that although A N Tiwari was appointed as CIC along with Wajahat Habibullah in October '05, he waited until he turned 60 in end-December '05, retired from government service, and then took up his office as CIC. When he retires from CIC's post in end-2010, he will be almost exactly 65 years to the day - squeezing the last drop of his residual service life!

  • Before becoming CIC, O P Kejriwal was Director General of All India Radio and earlier, CEO Prasar Bharati. Mrs Deepak Sandhu was working as Press Advisor to the Prime Minister. Mrs Sushma Singh was Secretary, Ministry of Information & Broadcasting. Putting it bluntly, they were all spokespersons and Public Relations Officers of Govt of India.

  • Mrs Omita Paul was briefly CIC between May and June '09, when she was between two assignments as Advisor to Pranab Mukherjee. Besides her closeness to Pranab Mukherjee - her bureaucratic career closely tracing his ministerial career over a 30-year span starting 1980 - she worked with the Information & Broadcasting ministry for about a decade. When not working in Pranab babu's ministries, she held positions in All India Radio, Doordarshan, Press Information Bureau etc. In other words, she too was a government spokesperson and PRO.

  • Mrs Annapurna Dixit was wife of late J N Dixit, who expired in January 2005. He was National Security Advisor to the Prime Minister. Making her Central Information Commissioner in October 2005 was evidently PMO's way of posthumously rewarding Mr Dixit for services rendered, and offering condolences to Mrs Dixit.

  • The Chief CIC Wajahat Habibullah is chief in this regard too - he worked in Indira Gandhi's PMO, facilitated the transition to Rajiv Gandhi's Prime Ministership after Mrs Gandhi's assassination, headed Rajiv Gandhi Foundation, was the Minister for Community Affairs in Washington DC at the Indian embassy there, and has written a two volume book titled Kashmir: Rajiv Gandhi's India. And he has also won the Rajiv Gandhi award for Excellence in Secularism.

So where is the question of Prime Minister's committee selecting CICs as per the criteria set out in Section 12(5)? DoPT is handling CIC selections exactly as it handles all government transfers & appointments! For all practical purposes, the Central Information Commission is just another government department, manned by hard-nosed bureaucrats and loyalists! Given the present method of appointment, our chances of getting independent and unbiased Information Commissioners are close to zero. Also, our chances are being appointed as CICs as per section 12(5), or of successfully nominating other members of civil society, are pitifully thin.