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Information freeze

 

MP is a classic case of how to get around RTI and beat the system, reports Raju
RAJU KUMAR | Issue Dated: February 24, 2013, New Delhi
Tags : Madhya Pradesh | State Information Commission | Right to Information | Lokayukta | TN Shrivastava |
 

Madhya Pradesh is faced with a ticklish problem in a year when state Assembly elections are due. It has not appointed either a Chief Information Commisioner or Information Commissioners to the State Information Commission (SIC),  which is mandatory under rules.

A potent weapon in the hands of people agitating against the scourge of corruption, government inefficiency, sloth and misdemeanour, establishments are increasingly becoming chary of the Right to Information (RTI). Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who took the lead in saying that RTI needs curbs, has found takers in several chief ministers, none more ardent than MP’s Shiv Raj Singh Chauhan.

Not surprising, considering that the state’s biggest scandals have been exposed through detailed RTI applications.


In such a situation, the government has showed no urgency in filling up posts in the SIC. For a state government which swears by transparency and accountability, it is a bit difficult to understand why. Insiders say thousands of applications are pending and there is very little anyone can do. At the moment, officials in the state secretariat admit, the state government is not willing to lay out a road map about clearing pendencies and the future of new applications is unknown.

According to latest statistics available, there are 10,734 appeals and 1,537 complaints registered with the SIC and no one can say when proceedings at the commission will begin. These include replies pending before various courts, a controversial IQ test for ministers, reports from the Raj Bhavan to the central government and expenditure on the travels of the Lokayukta – all considered important political information in an election year.

RTI activists allege that the move to keep the SIC without officers is deliberate: it is not in the government’s interest to let uncomfortable facts tumble out of its broom closets.

In Madhya Pradesh, scandals involving senior IAS officers and government functionaries at various levels have put the state government on the back foot. Keen to avoid more mishaps, the government is working hard to either find loopholes to by pass RTI or plainly ignore it all together. RTI activists say in the last year or so, there is virtually no information which has come out in the public domain.

Soon after the act came into affect in 2005, former IAS officer TN Shrivastava was appointed Chief Information Commissioner (CIC). But crucially, not one of the ten vacancies for Information Commissioners were filled up. Shrivastava retired in October 2006 but no replacement was made available till March 2007 when PP Tiwari took over. Three Information Commissioners – Iqbal Ahmed, Mahesh Pandey and Dinesh Chandra Jugran – were appointed simultaneously. But the other seven seats have continued to remain vacant till date.

Between February and July 2010, Tiwari, Jugran and Pandey completed their tenures and it was left to Iqbal Ahmed to keep a lonely vigil as acting CIC, a period manned by him in splendid isolation until his term came to an end in December 2012. Since then, the SIC in Madhya Pradesh has existed only on paper.

Ruling in the Namita Sharma vs the Union of India case, the Supreme Court has directed that one of the two Information Commissioners on any bench has to come from a judicial background, but no hearings have been conducted in the SIC since September 2012.

According to MP government spokesman Narottam Mishra, the state has asked the central government to give them directions on how to proceed with appointments in the wake of the Supreme Court’s directive. "As soon as it happens, appointments will be made in the SIC and regular proceedings will begin," he says.

Not everyone is convinced. Says RTI activist Ajay Dube, "It is ridiculous to ask for directions from the central government which has imposed no restrictions on how appointments to the SIC have to be made. I had moved the Jabalpur bench of the MP High Court asking the central government to insert newspaper advertisements for the posts to maintain transparency in appointments.  The state government is only interested in filling up vacancies with its appointees. On May 14, 2012, the high court had asked the state government to reply within a month. Needless to say, there is no reply to the court so far."

A three-member committee comprising the Chief Minister, a cabinet colleague and the Leader of Opposition select members to the SIC. In practice, it is not happening. Says MP’s Leader of Opposition  and Congress member Ajay Singh, "This state government is working hard to make things as opaque as possible. It is in their interest that rampant corruption and inefficiencies not be exposed. They were, in any case, keen to blunt the SIC from the very beginning. That has led to appointments being postponed indefinitely. I have also opposed names suggested by the state government because we need people with credibility and standing, not stooges."

PP Tiwari, the state’s former CIC could not agree more: "It is unfortunate that the SIC has been made dysfunctional. For democracy, it should be considered sacrosanct. In my time, we took action on a lot of appeals and there was transparency and accountability."

Tiwari during his tenure made several appeals to the government for a separate building and secretariat so that RTI work could be made more efficient. But that never happened because he had – much to the discomfort of the state government – helped highlight several cases of corruption and fraud.

Remembers Dube, "Before the 2008 Assembly elections, an RTI exposé had revealed that between January and March 2008, there were 2,700 petitions made by politicians for transferring policemen to favourite posts, keeping the polls in mind. The state is understandably cagey about any other such scam emerging; hence the negative attitudes of all concerned." It makes imminent sense for Chauhan to slow things down; if in the process, genuine information has dropped down to a trickle, so be it.

raju.kumar@thesundayindian.com

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Issue Dated: Feb 5, 2017