The issue of bringing political parties under the ambit of the Right to Information (RTI) Act is threatening to spiral into a crisis similar to that in the Supreme Court over bench-fixing at the Central Information Commission (CIC), the final appellate authority for RTI.
The transparency watchdog, which had brought political parties under RTI Act with a controversial order in 2013, is now facing an internal battle with information commissioner M Sridhar Acharyulu openly questioning chief R K Mathur’s decision to reconstitute a bench which was hearing the politically potent issue.
A complaint had been filed before CIC for non-compliance of its order and a three-member bench was hearing the matter since 2016. However, information commissioner Bimal Julka recused himself citing increased workload in end of 2016.
Mathur constituted a new bench removing all members in August 2017, but no hearings have taken place as two members retired. This move has been questioned by Acharyulu, who has openly challenged the motive behind it.
ET filed an application under RTI Act seeking access to files pertaining to the case of political parties being brought under RTI and know why no hearings had taken place for almost two years. So far, CIC had rejected all requests for file inspection under the pretext that the file “is under circulation.”
Documents accessed by ET through file inspection reveal a crisis within CIC over who would hear the issue. Acharyulu wrote to chief Mathur in February 2018 saying, “… the chief has no power under RTI Act to dissolve an already constituted full bench of three information commissioners… If a new bench with new members is constituted to hear the same matter which I and other members were already hearing, I and entire Commission have a right to such information and reasons thereof.”
Questioning the motive behind reconstitution, Acharyulu’s letter says, “It would be a judicial propriety for the chief to accord reasons to the Commission for reconstitution of the whole bench…”
“You may have noticed that the Chief Justice of India, who is the Master of the Roster, is also making such decisions in a transparent manner, after the four members of the collegium openly raised these issues. It is, therefore, important that all such decisions are taken in the Commission meeting with all the members present,” Acharyulu wrote.
What has raised more questions within the Commission is the decision to seek legal opinion of Additional Solicitor General of India Sanjay Jain on whether the chief information commissioner is within his right to constitute a larger bench after dissolving an already constituted smaller bench to hear complaints against six national parties.
Documents reveal CIC paid Rs 1.10 lakh for this opinion, which upholds Mathur’s decision to reconstitute a new bench. Rule 8 of the Law Officers (Conditions of Services) Rules 1972 says a law officer “shall not advice any ministry or department of government of India or any statutory organisation or any public sector undertaking unless the proposal or a reference in this regard is received through the ministry of law and justice, department of legal affairs.”
ET sent a written questionnaire to chief information commissioner R KMathur. In response, CIC additional secretary R K Singh told ET, “The Commission would take a view on the matter after all the information commissioners have perused the file, which is being circulated.” When pointed out why the Commission sought legal opinion on formation of benches in contravention of service rules, Singh cited Section 12 (4) of RTI Act and Singh said, “The Act clearly lays down that the chief is responsible for management of the Commission.”