The Supreme Court on Tuesday asked the Centre as to why only retired or sitting bureaucrats were being shortlisted by the search committee for appointment as information commissioners.
A bench of Justices A K Sikri and S Abdul Nazeer was told by the government that chief information commissioner and four information commissioners have already been appointed while the process for appointing other information commissioners was underway.
Additional Solicitor General (ASG) Pinky Anand, appearing for the Centre, said that search committee has recommended 14 names for consideration to the selection committee for appointing information commissioners.
"In these 14 names, apart from bureaucrats (retired or sitting) is there anybody else?" the bench asked.
To this, the ASG said one of the 14 persons is a retired judge while rest are bureaucrats.
"Their (petitioners) objection is that only civil servants are there. Ultimately, you do not find even a single person other than bureaucrats," the bench told the ASG.
The bench also observed that the search committee comprises of civil servants only.
The apex court is hearing a plea filed by RTI activists Anjali Bhardwaj, Commodore Lokesh Batra (retired) and Amrita Johri who have claimed that over 23,500 appeals and complaints are pending with the CIC as posts of information commissioners are lying vacant.
During the hearing, the ASG told the court that the process of appointing information commissioners was an ongoing exercise and government is following the selection criteria prescribed under the RTI Act.
Advocate Pranav Sachdeva, appearing for the petitioners, said that cases in State Information Commissions (SICs) are kept pending for years due to non-availability of information commissioners and in West Bengal, cases filed in 2008 is being decided now.
He said that as per apex court's December 13 last year order, the Centre should have put on the website the names of members of the search committee, candidates who have been shortlisted and criteria which was followed for selection but it was done only after the appointment of four information commissioners.
"This information should have been made public during the process of appointment and not after the appointment was already being done," Sachdeva said, adding, "transparency in the entire process is required".
He said that the government was appointing only retired or sitting civil servants as information commissioners but names of persons like activists, scientists, journalists, lawyers and others should also be considered for appointment.
The ASG told the court that government has complied with the requirements during the process of appointing chief information commissioner and information commissioners and the details were uploaded on the website.
She said 280 applicants had applied in the process and while some vacancies have been filed up, the process for others was going on.
The counsel appearing for West Bengal told the bench that they already have one state chief information commissioner and three state information commissioner and they would review the situation within six months and see whether they needed more state information commissioners.
Similarly, counsel appearing for Andhra Pradesh said they have three state information commissioners and process to fill up the vacancy was already underway.
The petitioners' counsel informed the bench that 10 state information commissioners have recently retired in Uttar Pradesh and he has filed a separate application in the court in this regard.
The bench asked the states to file affidavits within two-three days giving details of the steps taken by them in filing up the existing vacancies.
The apex court had earlier asked the Centre and states to maintain transparency in appointments of chief information commissioner and information commissioners and upload details of search committees and applicants on the website.
In July last year, the top court had expressed concern over vacancies at the chief information commission and state information commissions and had directed the Centre and seven states to file an affidavit giving a time schedule for filling up the posts.
The court had asked seven states -- Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Gujarat, Kerala, Odisha and Karnataka -- to apprise it about the time frame for filling up the posts.
The petitioners have said that several information commissions like in Gujarat and Maharashtra were functioning without the chief information commissioner, even though the RTI Act envisages a crucial role for this post on which the administration and superintendence of commission is vested.
The plea has claimed that the Centre and state governments have "attempted to stifle" the functioning of the RTI Act by failing to do their statutory duty of ensuring the appointments in a timely manner.