CIC upholds DoPT’s non-disclosure to RTI, goes by SC order
The Central Information Commission (CIC) has upheld the Department of Personnel and Training’s (DoPT) refusal to share minutes of meetings headed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, to select the country’s anti-corruption ombudsman, Lokpal, under the Right to Information Act (RTI), saying the Supreme Court had also refused to direct the government to provide the said information.
The government appointed former Supreme Court judge Pinaki Chandra Bose as the first Lokpal of the country on March 19, 2019. RTI activist Anjali Bhardwaj filed an application with DoPT, seeking a copy of the minutes of the meetings of the committee that selected Bose.
The central public information officer (CPIO) of DoPT declined to share the information saying that the minutes of the Lokpal selection committee meetings were marked as “secret” and therefore, cannot be shared. The officer , however, provided details of when the selection committee meetings were held and who participated in them. The Lokpal selection committee was headed by the Prime Minister.
Bhardwaj, in her appeal before CIC, said that marking a file as “secret” is not a ground under the RTI law to deny information, and claimed CPIO had not used any provisions of the transparency law to deny the information sought. “Under the law, access to information can be rejected only on the grounds mentioned in section 8 or section 9 of the RTI Act. Secret is defined under the Officials Secrets Act, which is not applicable under RTI,” she said in her appeal.
Rejecting her claim, information commissioner Saroj Punhani relied on two Supreme Court judgements to deny the information sought by Bhardwaj.
The first was issued in a case related to the constitution of Lokpal by the Central government in 2014. The Supreme Court said with regard to prayer of lawyer Prashan Bhushan to put names recommend by search committee in public domain that no direction should be assigned in this regard. “Rather the matter should be left for a just determination by the selection committee as and when the meeting of the committee is convened,” the court said.
The second was regard to transparency in appointment of information commissioners by the central government. In its order in 2018, the Supreme Court said DoPT has put names of the applications for posts of information commissioners, names of members of the search committee, agenda of the search committee and minutes on its website, which shows the process was transparent.
The search committee sends its recommendation to the select committee headed by the PM, and with the leader of the opposition and a Cabinet minister as members, to decide on the appointment of the information commissioners. The court said that the statutory (selection) committee consists of very high ranking persons and the department had provided all “essential” information in respect to each candidate on its website.
In its order, CIC said that the process of selection commission of appointment of the information commissioners and the Lokpal is same in nature. “Therefore, the commission is of the considered view that in the instant matter, CPIO upheld the interest of transparency by informing the (RTI) appellant regarding all the details of the selection committee and its meetings; hence the question of lack of transparency does not hold ground,” the information watchdog’s order said.
CIC also said that having taken cognizance of the averred dictum (judgements) of the apex court, the commission does not find it appropriate to intervene with the decision of CPIO.
Nikhil Dey of National Campaign for People’s Right to Information said that CIC has not addressed the issues raised in the appeal by Bhardwaj . “I would have liked CIC to address the concerns raised by Bhardwaj in its order. Now, SC (orders) will be a ground to deny information under RTI.”