By recalling its directions and declarations issued a year ago on the appointment of Information Commissioners under the Right to Information Act, the Supreme Court has ensured that there will be no frustrating complications in the working of this path-breaking law. The court’s determination in a review petition that Information Commissions do not exercise judicial powers and in fact discharge administrative functions confirms what the RTI community has emphasised all along — that the elegant law is designed to minimise discretionary interpretation and exempts only a select list of subjects from disclosure.
Moreover, the Commissions are not tribunals or bodies to which judicial powers have been transferred. The RTI Act does not, therefore, have to mandate appointment of judicially independent officers such as sitting or former judges, in the interests of separation of powers. This wise judgment has used the opportunity provided by the review petition to correct an error of law. The simplicity of the Act is preserved, and Information Commissions must now dedicate themselves to the task of breaking down barriers erected by vested interests to frustrate RTI applicants.
It is unavoidable that a far-going law such as the RTI Act is frequently subjected to challenge by powerful lobbies. Hearteningly, it has survived largely intact thus far, and draws a groundswell of support every time there is an attempt to dilute it. The proposal to amend it with the sole intention of annulling an order of the Central Information Commission bringing political parties under its ambit has led to significant citizen mobilisation against the move. This is not to say that nothing can be done to improve the Act’s working. As the court has pointed out, there are occasions when the Information Commissions are called upon to decide the limits of transparency and protect the privacy of individuals.
This has led to orders that may appear to go beyond the provisions of the law. The only test to be met in such circumstances is that of public interest, and Commissioners with a distinguished record in the social sector would find no difficulty in arriving at a decision. Regrettably, the Centre and the States have not been neutral about choosing people for the job. As the court has pointed out, people from various disciplines such as law, science, social service, journalism, and administration with undisputed eminence must be selected. Naturally, this means widening the gene pool beyond former bureaucrats and establishment loyalists. That the process must be open to scrutiny has been reiterated by the Supreme Court and it will doubtless be closely monitored by a rights-conscious citizenry.