Facing a revolt within, Chief Information Commissioner, Wajahat Habibullah, has sought help from the government to avoid a conflict between the higher judiciary and the information watchdog.
Habibullah’s desperate call comes after some of his colleagues at the Central Information Commission (CIC) openly questioned the May 21 verdict of the Delhi HC, declaring the commission had no power to set-up benches to hear RTI appeals or form inquiry panels.
The court quashed the CIC's 2007 regulation that empowered it to set up benches to hear RTI disputes and appoint inquiry committees.
The order has put a question mark over the legality of various CIC benches, apart from the main bench headed by Habibullah. At least four commissioners out of nine have expressed displeasure at the order.
The verdict comes at a time when there are at least 10,000 appeals pending before the CIC. For quick disposal, the commissioners hear appeals individually as well as in benches.
Information Commissioner MM Ansari said the verdict "impinged" on the CIC's autonomy. "A large number of the decisions of the information commissions...were challenged in courts. But nobody, including the Delhi HC, had ever questioned procedural guidelines."
He also attacked the government for not framing rules for smooth functioning of the commission.
Ansari's colleague, Shailesh Gandhi said the RTI Act empowered the commission to function independently. "Section 12 (7) of the Act clearly implies the setting up of independent benches. Parliament could not have envisaged transporting 11 commissioners to different parts of the country like an IPL team," he remarked.
Two other commissioners — AN Tiwari and Deepak Sandhu — have stopped hearing appeals and want the issue sorted out first.
Habibullah said he was out of the country and the matter would be sorted out amicably.
Asked whether the verdict would affect the CIC's functioning, he replied :"We have requested the Department of Personnel and Training to make the necessary amendments."
Habibullah ruled out moving the Supreme Court against the HC verdict. "I don't see a need for that," he said.