Sridhar Acharyulu, former information commissioner with the Central Information Commission, on Saturday appealed to MPs to prevent the passage of the Right to Information (Amendment) Bill, 2019, saying the executive was trying to “usurp” the power of the legislature.
In an open letter to all MPs, Acharyulu echoed transparency advocates’ fear that the amendment reflected an attempt by the Narendra Modi government to weaken the RTI architecture by making it subservient to the executive.
“The responsibility lies more on members of the Rajya Sabha (Council of States) because they represent the states, whose power to appoint independent commissioners is being removed and given to the Centre,” the letter said.
“I request every member of Parliament to save the RTI and… not allow the government to kill the commissions and this valuable right.”
If passed, the bill will allow the Centre to fix the salaries and tenures of the central information commissioner (CIC), information commissioners and state chief information commissioners, which are now on a par with those of the chief election commissioner (CEC) and the election commissioners.
Acharyulu warned that the Modi government would abolish the “legislative safeguard” guaranteed to these functionaries, denting their independence and making them subordinate to the government departments they are supposed to hold to account.
As for the bill removing the parity with the Election Commission, Acharyulu said: “(The) Supreme Court (had) proclaimed the RTI as the constitutional right emanating from Article 19(1)(a) which guaranteed freedom of speech and expression. The Election Commission enforces the right to vote, which is part of (the) expression right under Article 19(1)(a)….
“In a way, the CEC enforces only a small part of the expression right while the CIC is entrusted with the enforcement of a wider aspect of the expression right — the right to information. Without receiving information no citizen can express his views or criticise the wrong policies of the government. If the RTI requests are answered as per the law, it will directly impact governance, especially public delivery systems and expose corruption….’’
In a related statement, the National Campaign for People’s Right to Information accused the government of “wilfully misrepresenting an amendment to a basic feature of the law as a function of rule-making”.
It contested the government’s insistence that the RTI architecture cannot be equated with the Election Commission.
It argued that it’s customary to accord a high stature to independent statutory oversight bodies, including the Central Vigilance Commission and the Lokpal, and protect their members’ terms of service by equating them to functionaries of constitutional bodies.
The Campaign described the bill as a “legislative sleight” and as another example of this government’s “characteristic intention to disempower democratic institutions”.