Staggering pendency of cases with Orissa Information Commission- What for?
On 27.10.2011 I had been to the office of Orissa Information Commission to attend the hearing of a complaint case on the request of a Complainant. I happened to come across the notice board, where only 10 cases were found to have been listed for hearing by Mr. Tarun Kanti Mishra, State Chief Information Commissioner , 8 cases by Mr. Jagadanand and 1 case by Mr. Pramod Kumar Mohanty on that day. This fact that was surprising for the simple reason that Information Commissioners were hearing per day such a small number of cases when the pendency of the cases with the Commission as of today was more than 15,000, Secondly, it is also a fact that the Commission has decided not to hear the cases on Saturdays. Thus, they are observing a five-day week in respect of hearing of cases. If such practices continue, it will take around 6 years to dispose only the pending cases, forget about the cases to be filed within the intervening years.
Obviously, the people are losing faith in the Commission as their cases are being heard by the Commission after a big lapse of 2 to 3 years. The complainants are also losing their interest to attend the hearing of the cases, due to inordinate delay that renders the information sought by them irrelevant. Moreover, taking advantage of the absence of the complainants in the hearing, the Commissioners are also found disposing the cases in an arbitrarily manner, without ensuring the supply of information sought or imposing of penalty on the erring PIOs.
Massive pendency- the real reasons
a.The pendency of cases with the Commission started growing from the very time when Mr. D.N.Padhi, the then State Chief Information Commissioner and Prof. Radhamohan, State Information Commissioner got themselves briskly engaged in so-called awareness programme around the RTI Act. Leaving their mandatory duty to adjudicate the complaints and appeals, they were most of the time found in self-adorning roles of Chief Guest or Chief Speaker at awareness ceremonies sponsored by them out of funds grabbed from the Government through illegal means. Not only that. In order to garner support somehow for such nefarious misdeeds, they also arbitrarily distributed funds to different Govt. and Non-Govt. bodies including mostly their pet and pliant NGOs. In this process, the Commission acquired the image of a self-opinionated funding agency in place of a quasi-judiciary authority constituted for adjudicating the cases of complaints and appeals under the RTI Act. To start with, this perverse role of the Commission served as the single greatest factor for staggering pendency of cases that we see today.
b. Secondly, since the Commission started functioning, it has been noticed that the Commission has been disposing a meager number of cases per day. On a rough estimate the average monthly disposal by a Commissioner in years 2009 and 2010 was only 35 to 40 cases. Whereas, the Central Information Commissioners and other state Information Commissioners are found each disposing 300 to 450 cases per month. Now the question arises, why the performance of Orissa Information Commissioners in respect of disposal of cases is so dismal. Is it due to their inefficiency or any other reason. In fact, is sheer inefficiency of the Commissioners coupled with a lack of concern among them for the plight of the complainants and appellants. The question may arise again, how is it that such inefficient persons were appointed as Commissioners at all. The only possible answer to this all-important question is that these Commissioners have been given appointment mainly because of their close proximity to the political headquarters of the State, for whom loyalty rather than caliber mattered decisively.
c. Thirdly, it is further surprising that the hearing of the cases starts at 11 o'clock and gets finished at 2 o'clock i.e., only 3 hours being devoted for hearing. Many a time, the Commissioners do also wind up the hearing session by 1 o'clock, taking advantage of the absence of the PIO or the complainant/ appellant. However, the Central Information Commissioners like Mr. Sailesh Gandhi and Information Commissioners of other states begin their hearing sessions at 10 o'clock and continue upto 5 to 6 PM, being able thus to dispose larger number of cases.
D. Fourthly, Orissa Information Commissioners don't do any homework before coming to the hearing session. It has been noticed on several occasions that a Commissioner like Mr. Jagadanand, to start with, takes 10 to 15 minutes to read and understand a case, while the concerned parties shall remain standby in silence. Such a queer practice on the part of the Commissioner simply kills away the precious time and reduces the time required for hearing the parties. It has also been noticed that the said Information Commissioner enters the court with a haggard face after attending a meeting or workshop held elsewhere preceding his arrival in Commission's office. Only after reaching the hearing chamber, does he start minding his business of hearing. In absence of any home work as already mentioned, his performance in hearing and disposing a case degrades to an inferior quality too.
E. Fifthly, the Commissioners, instead of practicing quick disposal of a case after hearing the parties on one or maximum two dates, are in the habit of lingering the same through fixing somany dates of hearing for a single case. For example, in a complaint case of Mr. Nilamani Joshi, Bolangir the Commission fixed as many as 19 dates spread in two years for disposal of his case. This case involved a massive corruption in paddy procurement by an nexus of public servants, millers and politicians. The deliberate prolongation of this case by the concerned Commissioners not only exposes their rank inefficiency in handling a case, but also suggests some sort of clandestine nexus of the concerned Commissioners with the corrupt public servants involved in the case. Moreover, in some cases involving mega corruption by public servants, the Commission deliberately fixes several dates for hearing, so that the complainants would feel harassed and hesitant to attend the hearings. The Commission, taking advantage of the absence of the complainants so harassed, disposes the cases to the advantage of the corrupt public servants. Wonderfully enough, the decisions passed by the Commission in such crucial cases, say that the complainant has already received the information, the PIO is therefore exonerated from penalty and also the case is closed.
F. Sixthly, the Commission in their desperate bid to calibrate their image by way of showing the public an increased level of efficiency in case disposal has ventured into a dangerous strategy i.e. by disposing all the cases unilaterally, without hearing the parties and by way of remanding all the complaints and 2nd appeals to the concerned 1st Appellate Authorities with a direction to provide the information, along with an intimation to the concerned complainant/ appellants asking them to approach the Commission again if they fail to get the information as directed. By doing so, the Commission has been able to artificially hike the number of disposals, but there is not a single instance where this new strategy has benefitted the complainants or appellants. A complainant like the author of this write-up himself is deeply frustrated due to this new-fangled, face-saving strategy of the Commission.
G. Though more than 6 years have passed since its constitution, the Orissa Information Commission has not been able to show a single example where they have registered a complaint or appeal case properly, and issued the acknowledgement thereof along with case number to the complainant/appellant, let alone holding the hearing or deciding the case timely. Strange but true, the complainant/ appellants happen to know their case numbers after two to three years following the submission of their complaint/ appeals, and that too when the date for hearing is fixed.
Though the Commission has been criticized by the Civil Society Groups and RTI Activists on umpteen times for their negligence and inefficiency in disposal of cases, the statutory authority stubbornly refuses to revamp their old, dillydallying manner of disposing the complaints and appeals of the aggrieved RTI users. Under such circumstances, If the state goes for appointing more Commissioners like the present lot it will simply drain away a further chunk of state exchequer, built out of the tax payer's money.
RTI Activist, Orissa