RTI bill confirms activists' misgivings
New Delhi: The government on Tuesday lifted the thick veil of secrecy that had for three months shrouded its planned amendments to the Right to Information Act of 2005, only to confirm the misgivings of transparency activists that this was an attempt to weaken the accountability mechanism.
The Right to Information (Amendment) Bill, 2018, was circulated among Rajya Sabha MPs. This increases the possibility of it being among the early draft laws the government might try and introduce in Parliament's monsoon session, scheduled to begin from Wednesday, as the Narendra Modi dispensation is not in the habit of giving much advance notice to members.
The amendments seek to empower the central government to decide the tenure and salary and allowances of information commissioners of the Central Information Commission and State Information Commissions.
This would give the Centre control over the RTI mechanism, which has often held the powers that be to account, including the order to disclose Prime Minister Modi's university degree that is now being contested in court.
Central information commissioners (CICs) and state chief information commissioners are now held on a par with the central election commissioners, while state information commissioners have equivalence with state election commissioners and the chief secretary to a state government. Their term of office is a fixed five years subject to the age limit of 65.
The government's rationale for changing the salary structure and tenure of the information commissioners is that the CIC and State Information Commissions are statutory bodies (those created by legislatures) and not constitutional authorities like the Election Commission that are mentioned in the Constitution itself.
Transparency advocates contest this. "The principle of according a high stature, and protecting the terms of service by equating it to functionaries of constitutional bodies, is routinely adopted for independent statutory oversight bodies, including the Central Vigilance Commission and the Lokpal," the activists have pointed out in a joint statement.
Further, they said, the amendments would completely destroy the autonomy of information commissions set up under the RTI Act to adjudicate on appeals and complaints of people who have been denied their rights under the law.
According to them, the changes would fundamentally weaken the institution of the information commissions by adversely affecting their ability to function in an independent manner.
"The status conferred on commissioners under the RTI Act is to empower them to carry out their functions autonomously and require even the highest offices to comply with the provisions of the law," activists Anjali Bhardwaj, Nikhil Dey, Pradip Pradhan, Rakesh Dubbudu, Pankti Jog and Venkatesh Nayak said in the joint statement.
The amendments also violate the spirit of federalism, they said, as the Centre would now be "usurping for itself" the power to decide the tenure and salary structure of state information commissioners.
These are now provided in the RTI Act itself.
The bill is dated April 5, 2018, but the government did not use the months since for pre-legislative consultations and also stonewalled the RTI route to get information on the proposed amendments.