While the Central Information Commission (CIC) has shifted to the online medium to conduct hearings during the lockdown, the state information commissions (SICs) have largely failed to cope with the change in the scenario brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic, and work at the appellate bodies has come to a standstill, a survey has found.
While the CIC resumed hearings in appeal and complaint cases from April 20, its counterparts in the states are mostly non-functional, according to the findings of a rapid telephonic survey conducted by the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative.
The survey found that the CIC started working in right earnest during the first phase of the lockdown to resume hearings April 20 onwards. Apart from internal consultations, it also held two rounds of external discussions with civil society representatives and former Chief Election Commissioners about its plans for resuming work. In the week beginning April 20, the CIC heard at least 337 cases through audio conferencing. At the close of business on April 25, decisions in 279 cases had been uploaded on its website.
But the survey found that the scenario in the SICs was completely different. Only the SICs of Haryana, Rajasthan and Uttarakhand were open during the first phase of the lockdown, with barely one or two staffers present. A security guard answered the phone in Haryana saying that none of the staff were present due to the lockdown. The Uttarakhand Commission was manned by a couple of junior level staffers who were unsure about when the SIC would resume work.
During the second phase of the lockdown, nobody picked up the phone at the Uttarakhand SIC. An individual present at the office of the Haryana SIC, who did not identify himself, stated that hearings might be resumed after the lockdown ends. The Goa SIC had started working with a couple of junior level staffers who were unsure when hearings would resume. They said that none of the information commissioners nor the senior staff were attending office. Only one staffer was attending office in each of the SICs of Andhra Pradesh, Telangana and Tamil Nadu.
All of them said they were unsure of when exactly hearings would resume.
The CHRI cited the experience of a senior woman journalist at the Assam SIC. The SIC was open, but the lone staffer refused to accept the second appeal that she wanted to submit. He is said to have told her that there was no certainty when the SIC would resume work. Nobody responded to the call when the CHRI tried the helpline number published on Assam SIC’s website.
The Odisha SIC was also closed and none of its landline numbers were functional. In the Sikkim SIC, nobody answered the calls made to their landline numbers. When the CHRI called up the mobile number of the secretary advertised on the website, the person who answered the call stated that he was no longer working in that position. When the CHRI tried the mobile number of the State Chief Information Commissioner advertised on the website, the individual who answered the call stated that he was not the SCIC of Sikkim.
The commissions in Assam, Bihar, Goa, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh have been headless for several months now. The SICs of Bihar and Madhya Pradesh do not have functional websites either. The website of the SIC of Nagaland was functional until recently. However, it has become inactive during the lockdown period.
“Our rapid survey shows Information Commissions across the states have abdicated their role as champions of transparency when they are needed the most. Given the restrictions on people's movement imposed by the lockdown, this is the time to press governments to comply with their duty of proactive information disclosure emphasised under Section 4 of the RTI Act,” said Venkatesh Nayak, Programme Head, Access to Information Programme, CHRI.
“In all possibility, the lockdown and the consequent restrictions on people's movement are likely to continue for a much longer period. SICs must get their act together. They must start functioning in the manner of the CIC even during the lockdown,” Nayak said.