Insights into Editorial: The tremor of unwelcome amendments to the RTI Act
The government introduced in Lok Sabha the Right to Information (Amendment) Bill, 2019, which proposes to give the Centre the powers to set the salaries and service conditions of Information Commissioners at central as well as state levels.
“Amendments” have haunted the Right to Information (RTI) community ever since the RTI Act came into effect almost 14 years ago.
However, Lok Sabha passed the bill amending the Right To Information Act, amid objections by the Opposition which alleged that it was an attempt to undermine the law and make the transparency panel into a “toothless tiger”.
About Right to Information Act:
The RTI Act is regarded as one of the most successful laws of independent India.
It has given ordinary citizens the confidence and the right to ask questions of government authorities.
The RTI Act was introduced with the sole objective of empowering people, containing corruption, and bringing transparency and accountability in the working of the Government.
The Right To Information Act mandates that timely response be given to any citizen who asks for it.
This was an initiative taken by the Ministry of Personnel, Public Grievances and Pensions to ensure a portal for citizens who searched and needed quick information.
According to estimates, nearly 60lakh applications are being filed every year. It is used by citizens as well as the media.
RTI Breakthrough in recent Past:
The RTI has been used brilliantly and persistently to ask a million questions across the spectrum — from the village ration shop, the Reserve Bank of India, the Finance Ministry, on demonetisation, non-performing assets, the Rafale fighter aircraft deal, electoral bonds, unemployment figures, the appointment of the Central Vigilance Commissioner (CVC), Election Commissioners, and the (non)-appointment of the Information Commissioners themselves.
The information related to decision-making at the highest level has in most cases eventually been accessed because of the independence and high status of the Information Commission. That is what the government is trying to amend.
The RTI movement has struggled to access information and through it, a share of governance and democratic power.
The Indian RTI law has been a breakthrough in creating mechanisms and platforms for the practice of continual public vigilance that are fundamental to democratic citizenship.
The mostly unequal struggle to extract information from vested interests in government needed an institutional and legal mechanism which would not only be independent but also function with a transparency mandate and be empowered to over-ride the traditional structures of secrecy and exclusive control.
An independent Information Commission which is the highest authority on information along with the powers to penalise errant officials has been a cornerstone of India’s celebrated RTI legislation.
Arguments from the Government for Amendment:
Introducing the Bill in the Lok Sabha, the Minister of State for Personnel, Public Grievances and Pensions, asserted that this was a benevolent and minor mechanism of rule-making rather than a basic amendment to the RTI law.
- The Bill changes the terms and conditions of service of the CIC and Information Commissioners at the centre and in states.
- Chief Election Commissioner and Election Commissioners have salaries of a Supreme Court Judge. These bring CIC and ICs on par with apex court judges.
- But the functions carried out by the Election Commission of India and the Central and State Information Commissions are totally different.
- Election Commission of India is a Constitutional body, Central Information Commission and State Information Commissions are statutory bodies established under the Right to Information Act, 2005.
- CIC has been given the status of a Supreme Court Judge, but his judgments can be challenged in the High Courts.
- It is to correct certain anomalies in the RTI Act, it does not dilute the Act in anyway and it was passed in a hurry in 2005. RTI Amendments would strengthen the overall RTI structure.
Criticism to the proposed changes:
The proposed amendments tabled in Parliament have been in the offing for some time now. In the form of the Right to Information (Amendment) Bill, 2019, they seek to amend Sections 13, 16, and 27 of the RTI Act.
The deliberate dismantling of this architecture empowers the Central government to unilaterally decide the tenure, salary, allowances and other terms of service of Information Commissioners, both at the Centre and the States.
Assault on the idea of federalism:
- By diminishing the status of the CIC, IC and State CIC from that of a Supreme Court judge would reduce their ability to issue directives to senior government functionaries.
- The change would “kill the RTI Act” and is an “affront to federalism, good governance and ultimately, democracy”. It would also render freedom of speech meaningless.
Independence of RTI Act:
- The separation of powers is a concept, which underscores independence and is vital to democratic checks and balances. When power is centralised and the freedom of expression is threatened, democracy will be affected.
- The Commission will lose its independence and will function like a Department of the Central Government.
- The amendments would empower the Centre to make rules to decide the tenure, salary, allowances and other terms of service of information commissioners of the Central and also State Information Commissions.
- This will fundamentally weaken the institution of the information commissions as it will adversely impact the ability of commissioners to function in an independent manner.
Secrecy Concern: Circulating the Bill without any public consultation:
- National Campaign for People’s Right to Information (NCPRI) said the move creates grave concerns about secrecy.
- The government has brought about the Bill in complete secrecy and there have been no public consultations on the Bill, which will impact the fundamental right to information of the citizens of the country.
The RTI has unshackled millions of users who will continue to use this democratic right creatively and to dismantle exclusive power.
The law is seen as having acted as a deterrent for government servants against taking arbitrary decisions.
The need of the hour is the Government should take into account the concerns of the experts and should arrive at an amicable solution, which ensures sufficient independence to the Commission.
Government should bring the amendment after proper consultation with civil society and other stakeholders. It should towards strengthening RTI rather than weaken it from within for a sustainable and growing democracy.
The RTI has been and will be used to withstand attacks on itself and strengthen the movement for transparency and accountability in India.