Three retired civil servants who spent decades perfecting the art of secrecy have been selected to the transparency watchdog, Central Information Commission (CIC), by a top panel headed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
When they join the commission in a few days, the NDA government will break more than one record.
It will be the first time the watchdog will have a full complement of 10 information commissioners apart from the chief information commissioner since the CIC was constituted in 2005.
Nine of these 10 commissioners will be ex-civil servants who, until a few days ago, were busy blocking transparency initiatives while two will be retired spooks. The odd man out at the CIC is a former law professor from Hyderabad’s Nalsar University, Sridhar Acharyulu.
They will be the new custodians of the people’s right to information.
Spooks and Transparency
Amongst the three commissioners being appointed is Divya Prakash Sinha, an IPS officer who made his mark in the murky world of espionage. For years, Sinha headed the intelligence bureau’s counter-terrorism division and was closely involved in terror probes against Islamic as well as right-wing extremists.
Retired IAS officers – former Staff Selection Commission chairman, Amitava Bhattacharya, and former information and broadcasting secretary, Bimal Jhulka – are the other two information commissioners.
Sinha will not be the only retired intelligence officer at the commission; there already is Yashovardhan Azad, a retired IPS officer who spent much of his career in the intelligence bureau. Incidentally, both men retired from the same post of Secretary (Security) that oversees the functioning of the Special Protection Group that guards the prime minister.
Azad and Rajiv Mathur, a former intelligence bureau director who made it as the chief information commissioner for a brief spell, were appointees of the UPA government.
Parking lot for the retired: A new record
The NDA isn’t the first to turn the watchdog into a parking lot for ex-bureaucrats. But it is the first time that 90% of them have come straight from the government or government-run firms.
According to a study released by the RTI Assessment and Advocacy Group (RAAG) in 2014, nearly 60% of all information commissioners across the country were retired civil servants. Also, retired IAS officers accounted for 77% of all chief information commissioners.
For the record, the RTI Act had envisaged a wider pool of talent, it argued, pointing that this was also important to inspire public confidence. It asked that commissioners have wide knowledge and experience in law, science and technology, social service, management, journalism, mass media or administration and governance.
The writing on the wall
The administrative reforms commission sounded the alarm bells early in 2006 when it proposed a change in the rules that ensured at least 50% of the information commissioners wouldn’t be civil servants.
However, the recommendation was promptly rejected.
Ex-babus reluctant to penalise...
RTI activist Anjali Bhardwaj of the Society for Citizens Vigilance Initiatives draws a link between the high proportion of ex-babus in information commissions and their reluctance to impose penalties for wilful delay.
“The RAAG study found that penalties were imposed in only 4% of the cases decided by commissions where there was a delay in providing information,” Bhardwaj said, wondering what made retired intelligence officers or IAS officers such experts in the transparency law.
... But they know the system
RTI activist Subhash Chandra Agrawal, however, felt that too much was being made of civil servants being appointed to the commission.
“In my experience, it really does not matter... At the end of the day, it depends on the mindset of the person concerned,” Agarwal insisted.
“One of the best information commissioners I have seen was Satyananda Mishra, a retired civil servant. And a non-babu commissioner was notorious for his anti-transparency attitude,” he added.
Agarwal recalled how in an appeal he filed, the department of personnel and training officer tried to mislead the commission at a hearing. Mishra promptly caught on and pulled up the officer, reminding him that he had headed the department before his retirement and knew the systems well.
No vacancies for the first time
The CIC has always lived with vacancies as part of what, one government officer said, had been an unwritten strategy within the civil services to bring about a situation where the panel was overburdened.
“This ensured that appeals over a period of time take a long time to be heard... reducing the commission’s effectiveness, and nuisance value,” the officer – who was closely associated with the appointment process in the past – told Hindustan Times.
For instance, the CIC had started out with five commissioners in 2005. By 2008, it had eight. In 2011, there were as few as five and in 2012, there were only seven of them.
But the credit for this record does not entirely go to the government; RTI activists such as Lokesh Batra and RK Jain had earlier moved the Supreme Court in this regard. At its last hearing, the court gave the government six weeks to complete the selection process. Thursday’s meeting of the selection committee – that rejected Delhi Police Commissioner Bhim Sain Bassi’s claim – was timed to enable the government to comply with the apex court’s deadline that ends this week.