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TN Chief Info Commissioner post vacant for 4 months, activists question govt inaction

Activists say that a search committee headed by retired justice Akbar Ali submitted its recommendations to Chief Minister MK Stalin in February 2023 and that the CM met a candidate in March. Yet, the post remains vacant.

The post of Tamil Nadu’s State Chief Information Commissioner (SCIC) has been vacant for over four months, ever since R Rajagopalan resigned from the position in November 2022. Right to Information (RTI) activists say that this has made access to information, transparency, and accountability become issues of concern with regard to the Tamil Nadu Information Commission (TNIC). There has been no announcement from the state government regarding who will take over the position. Speaking to TNM, founder of the anti-corruption organisation Arappor Iyakkam, Jayaram Venkatesan, says, “Similar to how justice delayed is justice denied, information delayed is information denied. The TNIC functioned poorly even when it had a chief commissioner. Second appeals used to be delayed by a year.” There are a host of problems in how the TNIC functions, Jayaram Venkatesan adds. 

Transparency and accountability in appointments to the post of Chief Commissioner is a grave concern, Jayaram states. He adds that a search committee headed by retired justice Akbar Ali submitted its recommendation to Chief Minister MK Stalin in February 2023, and that the CM met a candidate in March. Yet, the post remains vacant. 

“The SCIC, as per the RTI Act, is supposed to be an expert in any of the fields such as journalism, the law, bureaucracy, or science and technology, but the appointments in Tamil Nadu to this post have always been political. Often, it is a bureaucrat or a lawyer close to the party in power,” he alleges. In his opinion, transparency is a key reason why retired police officials should not be appointed to the post. “The police are trained for secrecy and to withhold information. That is not what someone in the post of a Chief Information Commissioner should be doing,” he says. 

Madurai-based RTI activist S Karthik says, “The situation now raises suspicions that the state government is deliberately using the vacancy as a means to deny information to the public. The RTI is the single most important tool a regular citizen has to demand accountability from the government. Imagine the government working like a grand building — nobody outside knows what goes on inside the building and how it functions. The RTI is the tool to look inside and find out what wrongs are being committed.” 

Karthik, who recently brought attention to the underspending of allocated Scheduled Caste Sub Plan funds by the Tamil Nadu government in the last six years, adds that the process laid out for getting RTI replies and what actually happens in reality are vastly different. “The RTI Act is very clear. The reply to the RTI petition is supposed to come within a month. If it doesn’t, a first appeal can be filed, and a second appeal in fifteen days if the first appeal is ignored. If both appeals do not get a response, one can go straight to the TNIC,” he explains, adding that this is not how it actually works. “For example, I am waiting for nine months for an RTI I filed on data regarding honour killings. What has happened is, the reply I received simply said that my RTI petition doesn’t fall within the purview of the government I submitted it to and that the petition has been forwarded to the ‘relevant department’. It will keep getting passed around like that. But since there is a reply, I cannot go for a first appeal. In such a situation, when the authority who is responsible for holding these departments accountable has not been appointed, it makes me wonder if the state government is trying to avoid providing information.” 

The TNIC, as Jayaram  points out, is not working at full capacity, but has only two information commissioners working in the Department, which contributes to the delay in replying. “According to the RTI Act, up to ten information commissioners and one Chief Information Commissioner can be appointed. Ever since the Act was ratified in 2005, Tamil Nadu has had only six information commissioners and one Chief Information Commissioner. Despite knowing that there are procedural delays, consecutive state governments have not tried to increase the number of commissioners, in order to reduce delays,” Jayaram says. He stresses that this is why the new Chief Information Commissioner has to be someone who will take accountability for these delays. 

SP Thiagrajan, also an RTI activist, agrees with Jayaram’s allegation that appointments to the post of Chief Commissioner are political in nature. “They should have started the selection process months in advance, when they knew that the post was going to be vacant. But it has become the case that appointments are made based on who in that post will act favourably towards the government. From my point of view, the state government does not seem to respect the RTI Act at all.” Thiagrajan too says that there are delays throughout the process of getting an RTI reply and that second appeals in his experience have taken up to a year.

Read: Tamil Nadu information commission provides least info for study on RTI filings

Source: The News Minute