House panel to scrutinise CIC, state information commissions

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Economic Times, December 16, 2020

NEW DELHI: The Central Information Commission and state information commissions would come under parliamentary scrutiny, for the first time since enactment of Right to Information (RTI) Act. The parliamentary committee on personnel, public grievances, law and justice has decided to review working of CIC and state information commissions — the final appellate authority for RTI Act.

This is the first such parliamentary scrutiny of the functioning of the transparency watchdogs. So far, CIC has submitted annual reports to ministry of personnel, public grievances and pensions, the nodal ministry for RTI-related issues. The annual report is tabled in both Houses of Parliament and gives a snap shot of functioning of CIC, the annual RTI load, handling of RTIs in different central ministries and departments, rejection rates and reasons for rejection.

RTI activists, however, have raised questions over the move. RTI activist Anjali Bhardwaj of National Campaign for People’s Right to Information (NCPRI) said: “Given the recent amendments to the RTI Act that undermined the independence of information commissions, this development is bound to raise doubts in the minds of citizens. It is extremely important that the terms of reference of the committee be made public. There are several issues, including lack of timely and transparent appointments in commissions and the inordinate delays in disposing cases which are plaguing functioning of commissions. A larger question is whether a parliamentary panel can look at functioning of state commissions, which submit their reports to state legislatures.”

The only time such an exercise was undertaken was during UPA-1 when parliamentary standing committee had sought to review RTI implementation efforts of the government. Terming the current move as ‘novel’, activist Venkatesh Nayak of Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI) questioned the validity of parliamentary oversight over state commissions. “The most important question that needs to be asked is how would information about the working of SICs be sourced from states? The ministry has repeatedly told Parliament it doesn’t have even RTI application-related data from states when MPs have raised questions. Instances of state government bureaucrats appearing before parliamentary committees are also unheard of in the past. Ideally, every state legislature should hold such performance review exercises based on SIC’s annual reports for ensuring greater accountability. It is only then that governments like that of UP will have to answer why not a single annual report about the working of RTI has been submitted till date, or as to why there are delays of several years in submission like in Bihar, Karnataka, Kerala and other similarly placed SICs,” he said.

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