Ten days after the Supreme Court admonished the Indian government for not having filed a reply, for a good one year, to the petition filed by member of Parliament (MP) Jairam Ramesh, the department of personnel and training (DoPT), finally on 5th March filed a counter affidavit insisting that, “the 'independence and the autonomy of the Information Commission are not' being compromised.”
Mr Ramesh’s petition had challenged the Right to Information (RTI) Amendment Rules 2019, stating that they “complete the destruction of the independence of Information Commissioners.”
The counter affidavit filed by Rashmi Chowdhury, additional secretary, DoPT, has argued that as per the Section 12(4) and/or Section 15(4) of the RTI Act, 2005 which provides "the general superintendence, direction and management of the central information commission or state information, continues to rest with the chief information commission or state commission, autonomously, without being subjected to directions by any other authority under this Act.’’
Jairam Ramesh, in his petition, has stated that the RTI Amendment Act, 2019 and its accompanying Right to Information (term of office, salaries, allowances and other terms and conditions of service) Rules, 2019 goes against the aims and objects of the RTI Act, 2005 and the Constitution of India. Elaborating further he argues that, "Section 2(c) of the Amendment Act grants absolute power to the central government to prescribe the salaries, allowances, and terms and conditions of service of the central information commissioners that in the pre-amended Act was fixed to be on par with election commissioners under Section 13(5) of the RTI Act.’’ The DoPT’s counter affidavit denies it.
Regarding Section 4.6 of the RTI Amendment Act 2019, " the Central government under section 3(c) of the Amendment Act is also granted with absolute powers to prescribe the salaries, allowances and terms and conditions of the state information commissioners that were previously fixed to be on par with an election commissioner for chief state information commissioners and on par with the chief secretary of a state for state information commissioners under Section 16(5) of the RTI Act.’’ DoPT’s counter affidavit states these allegations are “wholly unfounded, false and baseless and therefore, does not hold any ground.’’
Following are some of the contentions of the petitioner Jairam Ramesh on the RTI Act which contained several in-built safeguards to ensure the independence of information commissioners appointed to the CIC or SICs, before the amendments in 2019 and after the amendments :
* A fixed tenure of service of 5 years or till the attainment of 65 years of age [whichever is earlier] for a central information commissioner or state information commissioner under Section 13 and 16 respectively of the RTI Act.
Amendment: 4.3 Sections 2(a) and 2(b) of the Amendment Act supra, alters the erstwhile fixed tenure of 5 years of the central information commissioners under Sections 13(1) and 13(2) of the RTI Act, to a tenure to be prescribed by the central government. 5.2 Rule 3 and Rule 12: These rules prescribe a tenure of three years for the office of central information commissioners [rule 3] as well as state information commissioners [Rule 12]. The tenure of information commissioners is therefore solely subject to the will of the central government.
* The salaries and allowances payable to and other service conditions of chief central information commissioners were fixed as equivalent to that of a chief election commissioner and those of central information commissioners made equivalent to that of election commissioners under Section 13(5) of the Act.
Amendment: 4.5 Section 2(c) of the Amendment Act grants absolute power to the central government to prescribe the salaries, allowances, and terms and conditions of service of the central information commissioners that in the pre-amended Act was fixed to be on par with election commissioners under Section 13(5) of the RTI Act.
5.3 Rule 5 and Rule 14: These rules prescribe the salaries of the central information commissioners [Rule 5] and the state information commissioners [Rule 14]. The salaries of information commissioners are also at the sole pleasure of the central government.
The petition states that, ``even assuming the RTI Amendment Act merely delegated rule making power to the central government without thwarting the independence of information commissioners, its accompanying RTI Rules complete the destruction of the independence of information commissioners.’’
The other objection in the petition to the RTI Amendment Act 2020 is that "the decision of the central government is binding upon the information commissioners.’’ This, the petition states, "allows unbridled and uncanalised discretionary power to the central government that jeopardizes the independence of information commissioners.’’
The petition states that, "the government feels threatened by the authorities under RTI that are not answerable to it and hence, the real purpose of the impugned amendments is to clip the independence and impartiality of the authorities under the act. This can be seen from the several decisions passed by the authorities under the RTI act fearlessly both at the state and central levels which makes these decisions unpalatable to the central government.’’
(Vinita Deshmukh is consulting editor of Moneylife, an RTI activist and convener of the Pune Metro Jagruti Abhiyaan. She is the recipient of prestigious awards like the Statesman Award for Rural Reporting which she won twice in 1998 and 2005 and the Chameli Devi Jain award for outstanding media person for her investigation series on Dow Chemicals. She co-authored the book “To The Last Bullet - The Inspiring Story of A Braveheart - Ashok Kamte” with Vinita Kamte and is the author of “The Mighty Fall”.)