Brushing Opposition Aside, Govt Thrusts RTI Amendment Bill to Emaciate Information Commissioners
Despite much clamour and even a walkout staged by the Opposition parties, with their leader in the Lok Sabha claiming that amendments to the legislation can prove dangerous to the fundamental rights of the citizen, the RTI Amendment Bill 2019 was introduced in the Lok Sabha today in the afternoon.
Clearly emboldened by the huge majority that it has got in the recent Lok Sabha elections, the NDA government is back to its mission of attempting to curtail the efficacy of the RTI Act by crippling the powers of the Central and state information commissioners.
It may be recalled that a similar exercise was undertaken exactly one year back, but this amendment bill, which will empower the government to regulate the tenure, salaries and allowances of information commissioners across the country was not tabled in Parliament. This backtracking was thanks to RTI activists and the media putting ample pressure on the government. This time though, it looks like the Lok Sabha is likely to bulldoze any opposition and pass the bill. It will then be left for the activists to put pressure on the Rajya Sabha and on the government to place it in front of the standing committee.
Objections raised by MPs of several opposition parties pertained to the bill not having been circulated to them two days before introducing it, as is the norm, and lack of precise details of how the Central government is going to decide the tenure and salaries of information commissioners.
The main bone of contention that the government speaks of is, why the salaries and tenures of information commissioners should be at par with the pay scales and tenures of the supreme court judges and the election commissioners, when they are not a constitutional body but a statutory body and hence the need for amending Section13 of the RTI Act. MP Jitendra Singh of the BJP, who introduced the bill, stated in his note of 18 July, 2019: ``The functions being carried out by the election commission of India and the Central and state information commissions are totally different. The election commission is a constitutional body established by clause (1) of article 324 of the Constitution and; is responsible for the superintendence, direction and control of the preparation of the electoral rolls for, and; the conduct of, all elections to Parliament and to the legislature of every state and of elections to the offices of president and vice-president held under the Constitution.
``On the other hand, the Central information commission and state information commissions are statutory bodies established under the provisions of the Right to Information Act, 2005. Therefore, the mandate of election commission of India and Central and state information commissions are different. Hence, their status and service conditions need to be rationalised accordingly.’’
Argues Venkatesh Nayak, research scholar and programme coordinator of Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI), `` The amendment proposals contradict the Central government's 2017 action of upgrading the salary packages of 19 statutory tribunals and adjudicating authorities - all of which have been established under a specific law and whose members are not constitutional authorities.
``Some of these Tribunals are: Central Administrative Tribunal, National Green Tribunal (NGT), Armed Forces Tribunal, Appellate Tribunal for Electricity, Railway Claims Tribunal, Intellectual Property Appellate Board, Debts Recovery Appellate Tribunal, Central Excise and Customs Tribunal, Telecom Disputes Settlement Appellate Tribunals, Securities Appellate Tribunal, Income Tax Appellate Tribunal, Authority on Advance Ruling and even the Film Certification Appellate Tribunal (FCAT).’’
Keeping the information commissioners unsettled in their seats with the Central government having the power to remove them if they give CIC orders that could hurt it, will ensure that vital information which would expose the government would not be revealed. Also, keeping the salary quotient uncertain, it will ensure that noteworthy individuals, who have the capacity to strengthen transparency through this RTI Act, would hesitate to apply for this post.
As it is, the NDA government has been showing its true intent of killing this formidable, citizen-friendly Act, by deliberate procrastination in filling up posts of information commissioners at the Centre as well as other states. It has also snatched away former Central information commissioner, Prof Shridhar Acharyulu, from his PMO office jurisdiction when he passed a CIC order regarding providing information on PM Narendra Modi’s educational qualifications.
RTI activist Commodore Lokesh Batra, who, along with RTI activists Anjali Bhardwaj and Amrita Johri had filed a petition in the Supreme Court against the dilly-dallying of the appointment of information commissioners at the centre, states that this amendment would be detrimental to the RTI Act.
He says, ``As it is since 2014 the government has not appointed any information commissioners in Central information commission, until directed by the courts, which compelled transparency campaigners to file PILs. That has resulted in pendency of cases skyrocketing to nearly 32,000 cases, thus frustrating the very purpose of the RTI Act, as receiving information in time-bound manner is the essence of the law. It is another attempt by the government now to amend the RTI Act by taking away the autonomy of information commissions – amounting to killing the citizens’ “Right to know”. This too after the Hon’ble SC has already settled this issue in its Judgement of 15 February 2019 in the PIL case WP(C) 436 of 2018.’’
States RTI activist Anjali Bharadwaj, ``Looks like, activists and citizens would have to put back the pressure on the government by ensuring that it does not pass in the Rajya Sabha and by pressurising the government to place it in front of the standing committee.’’
As it is, in the latest global survey 2018 conducted annually by Access Info Europe and the Centre for Law and Democracy, India, which was at the second top position in the world, has slipped to the sixth position due to large pendency at the CICs and resistance of PIOs in providing information.
(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”.