Following a high-level meeting comprising of Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, Law Minster AK Balan, and Opposition Leader Ramesh Chennithala, the committee has decided to appoint current Chief Secretary Vishwas Mehta as the next Chief Information Commissioner for Kerala. While media reports claimed that the committee had unanimously agreed to it, Ramesh Chennithala had opposed the decision while participating via an online video link provided by the government. “Due to poor network coverage and poor video quality, I could not communicate my views on the subject. Now media reports are suggesting that the decision of the committee to appoint Vishwas Mehta IAS as the next State Chief Information Commissioner was unanimous,” he said.
There are three issues to the selection of Vishwas Mehta as the CIC, one being that the Opposition Leader had filed a complaint with the vigilance and anti-corruption investigation against him “for his attempt to engage some private international consultancy firms in the works and projects of Water Resource Department in a highly irregular manner”. Ramesh added, “I have strong reservations and objections in his selection for the post of Chief Information Commissioner. Hence my objections and concerns and dissent in his selection may be properly included in proceedings of the meetings and its minutes.”
The second being that according to Section 15 (6) of the RTI Act, “The State Chief Information Commissioner or a State Information Commissioner shall not…hold any other office of profit or connected with any political party or carrying on any business or pursuing any profession.” Vishwas Mehta is the outgoing Chief Secretary, to be succeeded by VP Joy who is currently an officer on special duty with the government. Moreover, such an appointment invalidates the provisions of the Act, seeing as how it feels more as a “reward” rather than an appointment, say political observers. In 2011, the then Chief Minister Achuthanandan and Home Minister Kodiyeri Balakrishnan had gone over Opposition Leader Oommen Chandy’s opinion and appoint Siby Mathews as the CIC, and the latter was asked to take voluntary retirement from service to be approved for the post. While this might look like a technicality, from a political perspective it can be construed as a loophole, and loopholes are rarely ethical.
The third and most important matter would be that Vishwas Mehta had never been a forthcoming official during his time with the Kerala government. While he was the Chief Secretary, in August 2020, he released a ‘confidential note’ claiming, “Severe disciplinary action, investigation, and criminal proceedings would be initiated in all such cases, where the official concerned is found negligent or involved directly/indirectly in leaking information to an outsider.” In the same order, he had alleged that official remarks in the “leaked files” are being selectively showcased by the media in a twisted manner with a deliberate attempt to allege malpractices and malign the government. This order was issued by the next CIC of Kerala.
Moreover, while he was the Principal Secretary of the Revenue Department in 2015, he had signed a government order regarding the amount of sand to be mined from Periyar in three years. The government order carried a grave mistake, allowing the sand miners to ride into the sunset with extra 55,000 cubic metres of sand worth Rs 6.87 Crore. Moreover, according to official sources, the then Chief Secretary Tom Jose, DGP Lokanath Behera and Mehta had taken a secret helicopter ride to Pamba valley to put a stop to an order halting the sand mining in the area. This was hours before Jose retired and Mehta took over as the new Chief Secretary.
Mehta will complete his tenure as the Chief Secretary on February 28, after which he would be our Chief Information Commissioner and VP Joy will take his place as the Chief Secretary.