Former information commissioners join ranks against RTI amendment bill
Former central information commissioners joined ranks on Wednesday to oppose the proposed RTI amendment bill, arguing that the commission is a constitutional body and the government had no right to tamper with its structure.
The bill seeks to allow the Centre to fix the salaries and tenures of information commissioners. It was passed on Monday in the Lok Sabha, but was not taken up in the Rajya Sabha today when the BJP got an indication that it did not have the numbers to pass the bill.
The former commissioners said that while the original law — the Right To Information Act, 2005 -- was intensely debated before being passed, the amendment bill was passed in a hurry and without debate on the merits of the changes.
Wajahat Habibullah, Deepak Sandhu, Yashovardhan Azad, M.S. Acharyulu, M. M. Ansari and Shailesh Gandhi were some of the former information commissioners present at the news conference today at the Indian Women's Press Corps.
Former CIC Habibullah contended that the government’s argument that the commission is a statutory body and not a constitutional one was flawed. He insisted that the commission had a status equal to the Election Commission.
“To say that the Election Commission of India is a constitutional body and CIC is not is an absurd argument. The Election Commission is constitutional because it deals with elections which is a constitutional right. The Right To Information (RTI) Act repeatedly has been held to be a part of Article 19 by numerous Supreme Court orders, and therefore, is a fundamental right,” Habibullah said.
He flagged concerns about the independence of the information commissioners, in case the amendment comes to be.
“If they (information commissioners) are beholden to the government for their salary, tenure and terms of service, they will be under an obligation. This goes even for those with the most undoubted integrity. This is a case of human failure. You don’t really have to be corrupt to toe the government line then,” he said.
Another former information commissioner, Shailesh Gandhi, said there was no merit in the change proposed by the government. “The amendment draft has no substance in it. I even discussed it with BJP lawmakers. They have no valid reason in favour of making this change,” he said.
According to the Section 13 of the RTI Act, 2005, the status of the Chief Information Commissioner (CIC) and information commissioners is stipulated to be equal to those of Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) and election commissioners, respectively.
The section also provides for the terms of service and salary of the information commissioners, which it says will be equal to that of CEC in case of CIC, and with those of election commissioners, in case of information commissioners.
The government has proposed the draft amendment contending that the election commission and the information commission have different mandates and cannot be equal and need to be treated differently.
During the news conference, the former information commissioners pointed out that the BJP-led central government had not appointed a single new information commissioner at the CIC since 2014 till the Supreme Court had intervened and directed the government to fill vacancies in February.
According to rules, under a chief information commissioner, there are supposed to be 10 information commissioners. As of now, there are six. There are about 32,000 cases pending with the CIC.