RTI Amendment: Threat to autonomy?

The Lok Sabha has passed the Right to Information (Amendment) Bill, 2019 which seeks to make changes to the statutorily fixed tenure and service conditions of Information Commissioners.

Background 

The Right to Information Act came was set up in 2005, replacing the Freedom of Information Act, 2002. Under the provisions of this Act, citizens can request information from a body of government or “instrumentality of State”. It also requires that the response has to be quickly dispatched and that records are computerised.

The RTI Act confers an autonomous status to commissions to empower them to carry out their functions independently. It has been the lifeline for many ordinary users, mostly for survival. 

 The Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative pointed out 310 cases where people were attacked, abused and harassed because of the information they sought under the RTI. Additionally, it is alleged that 80 RTI users have been murdered. 

Analysis 

 The RTI (Amendment) Bill 2019 was introduced by the NDA government in the Lok Sabha on July 19th. The bill aims to authorize the Central Government to unilaterally decide the tenure, salaries and other terms of services of Information Commissioners at State and Centre. 

 According to the RTI Act 2005, the Chief Information Commissioner (CIC) and Information Commissioners (IC) have a fixed tenure of 5 years or till he/she attains the age of 65 years. The amendment bill suggests to change the period ‘for such term as may be prescribed by the Central Government. Salaries and other terms of service of the CIC and ICs are the same as that of Chief Election Commissioner and Election Commissioners respectively. This is fixed as per the provisions of the Constitution. The bill has proposed an amendment to enable the government to determine the pay, allowances and service terms of the IC. 

 The bill was passed in the face of objections by activists and members of the opposition party. In a statement, Sonia Gandhi, UPA chairperson noted that “It is a matter of utmost concern that the Central Government is hell-bent on completely subverting the historic Right to Information Act, 2005. This law, prepared after widespread consultations and unanimously passed by Parliament, now stands at the brink of extinction,”. Congress MP Shashi Tharoor marked that it was not an RTI Amendment Act but ‘RTI Elimination Act’. He said, “This Bill is removing the two greatest armours of institutional independence and on top of that, by controlling the State Information Commissioners, by taking over the power to determine their salaries, the Central government is destroying it.”

The reason for the Amendment of the Bill states “the mandate of Election Commission of India and Central and State Information Commissions are different. Hence their status and service conditions need to be rationalised accordingly”. The NDA has maintained that there is no ulterior motives and that the amendments will not compromise the autonomy or independence of the Act but rather, provide a frame for the tenure and terms of conditions of IC which had not been set by the UPA in 2005. 

 Prashant Bushan, senior advocate who is representing activists in Supreme Court for CIC vacancies case, stated that government was undermining the independence of major institutions by either changing the law or putting its own hand-picked people in them. “The Central Vigilance Commission has now gone on to destroy the CBI. A raid was conducted on the CBI director as he declared his independence and was about to order a probe into the Rafale deal,” he said.  Mr. Bushan noted that the governor of Reserve Bank of India, Urjit Patel resigned because he was required to go slow on the recovery of money from various companies to the government, and that the government required the central bank to release Rs. 3 lakh crores, which were meant for other purposes. He stated that the Election Commission and top posts in the universities are also being compromised.

Assessment 

  • Amendments for the RTI Act have been proposed since 2006, just six months after the law was implemented. Governments have always been threatened by this institution, which extracted information and which were also required to maintain transparency. 
  • If the Commission which is vested by law, will function as a department of the Central Government, it is likely that the persons appointed as ICs will be subject to the highest authorities of the government, thus depriving the citizen of their Right to Information. 
  • 2G spectrum scam which shook the UPA government,  Adarsh Building Scam that forced the resignation of Maharashtra Chief Minister Ashok Chavan, Commonwealth Games scam were all brought to fore through RTI interventions. We feel that there is an underlying perception that RTI is a weapon wielded against the government, due to which there is a deliberate architectural change to affect its existing form. 

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