RTI bill on hold, changes sneak in

Forced to defer introduction of the Right to Information (Amendment) Bill, 2018, in the face of stiff opposition in Parliament and outside, the Narendra Modi government appears to have brought it into effect without parliamentary approval through an advertisement.

By Our Special Correspondent
  • Published 30.07.18
  •  

New Delhi: Forced to defer introduction of the Right to Information (Amendment) Bill, 2018, in the face of stiff opposition in Parliament and outside, the Narendra Modi government appears to have brought it into effect without parliamentary approval through an advertisement.

On July 26, the department of personnel, public grievances & pensions issued an advertisement for appointment of information commissioners in the Central Information Commission (CIC) that said the "salary, allowances and other terms and conditions of service of the ICs shall be as may be specified at the time of appointment of the selected candidate/s''.

Under the existing law, the salary, allowances and other terms and conditions of service for the chief information commissioner and information commissioners are all clearly specified. Sub-section (5) of Section 13 of the RTI Act, 2005, provides that these shall be the same as that for the chief election commissioner and election commissioners respectively.

The amendment bill, listed for introduction in the Rajya Sabha on July 19, ran into opposition precisely because it sought to change this and empower the Centre to decide the tenure, salary and allowances of information commissioners at the CIC and in the state information commissions through rules.

The bill was deferred indefinitely after the Opposition threw its weight behind transparency advocates opposing the changes on the ground that these are intended to weaken the edifice on which RTI stands.

Venkatesh Nayak, coordinator of the Access to Information Programme at the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, told The Telegraph "the government seems to have taken it for granted that Parliament will approve the amendments when the reality is that the Opposition in the Rajya Sabha has demanded that it be referred to a select committee''.

In his opinion and that of lawyer Prashant Bhushan, the advertisement was issued also to show the Supreme Court that the government is trying to fill up vacancies in the CIC.

At present, there are four. By December another four information commissioners, including the chief, will retire. That will leave the CIC with just three information commissioners.

Anjali Bhardwaj, who along with two other RTI activists moved the Supreme Court for filling up the vacancies, said the advertisement was issued a day before Friday's hearing to avoid embarrassment in court. Details of the ad were not widely known then, and the government could cite it to argue that it was acting on filling up the vacancies.

"We will file an affidavit to show how the government is making a mockery of the RTI law and federalism,'' Bhardwaj said, pointing out that the Centre through the bill will become the appointment authority for information commissioners in the State Information Commissions too.

Referring to an advertisement placed by the DoPT in September 2016 - months before the first two vacancies were to come up in the CIC - Bhardwaj said the latest ad does not even mention how many posts are up for appointment.

"In fact, the court even asked what happened to applications received in response to the September 2016 advertisement'' as till date no appointment had been made for vacancies that came up in January and February 2017.