The High Court of Kerala on Wednesday issued a notice to the Centre on the basis of a petition filed by RTI activist Advocate DB Binu. The petition challenges the powers of the Right to Information (Amendment) Act 2019 stating that the recent amendments violate Articles 14, 19 and 21 of the Constitution.
The amendments to the RTI Act basically, prescribe that the term, salaries, allowances and conditions of service of the Central Information Commission (CIC) and State Information Commission (SIC) will now be determined by the Central government. Earlier, information commissioners had a fixed tenure of five years and their pay/allowances were on par with Election Commissioners.
The petition argues that “the entire independence and autonomy of the CIC and SIC have been taken away in a most undemocratic manner and in violation of the Rule of Law rendering the amendment unconstitutional”. Adv Binu explains that the RTI act was brought into force “as part of the constitutional duty of the State to give effect to the fundamental right of the citizens to get information from public authorities in a transparent manner with due accountability.”
But since the amendments have practically taken away the independence and autonomy of the respective institutions, “the foundation stone on which the entire structure of the practical regime has been built up” will be affected, essentially rendering useless the Right to Information of citizens. The petition further argues that the amendments will also affect the efficiency of information commissioners who essentially promote transparency and accountability in the working of public authorities which also includes the government.
“The Parliament has no power or authority to take away the independence and autonomy of the aforesaid institutions” and “if such unbridled power is granted to the (government) the aforesaid officers who are to independently control the two vital institutions under the Act will become subordinate officers of the (government)”, the petition further reads.
The Amendment Bill states that the salaries and allowances of the Chief Election Commissioner and Election Commissioner are equal to a Judge of the Supreme Court of India, as the Election Commission is a constitutional body. The amendments further say that CIC and SIC are, however, statutory bodies and the mandate of the Election Commission of India and CIC/SIC are different; therefore, their status and service conditions need to be rationalised accordingly.
In the petition, however, advocate Binu argues that, “This observation is factually incorrect. Status of CIC and SIC vis-a-vis other authorities similar in rank and status of the Judge of Supreme Court of India has to be considered not from the point of view of their constitutional status but from the point of view of their status having regard to the knowledge, expertise, public recognition and their status in society.” He further argues that the National Human Rights Commission, National Consumer Disputes Redressal Commission and similar Commissions like Lok Pal are headed by eminent persons in the rank of the Judge of Supreme Court; but none of these commissions is a constitutional body.
Prior to the amendments, CICs and SICs were appointed to their positions by governor of the state on the basis of a recommendation from a committee consisting of the chief minister, leader of opposition in the legislative assembly and a cabinet minister. This essentially means that CICs, SICs, and information commissioners are “envisaged as persons of high eminence in public life having expertise in their respective fields to be appointed by the highest constitutional authorities in India and on their recommendations to ensure that they are not appointed by the government at its whims and fancies.”
On these grounds, advocate Binu represented by advocate P Chandrasekhar has prayed that the Court declare the Right to Information (Amendment) Act, 2019 as unconstitutional ultra vires of Articles 14, 19 and 21 of the Constitution of India.