In the wake of the Congress-led Opposition’s failure to prevent the amendments to the Right to Information Act in Parliament, RTI activists have charted a plan of action looking to the Supreme Court, the Rashtrapati Bhavan and the public arena.
They hope to launch a mass RTI campaign targeting the government’s vulnerabilities, from corruption in defence spending to the Prime Minister’s educational qualifications and the state of the economy.
The amendments passed by Parliament will give the Centre the power to set the salaries and tenures of members of the State and Central Information Commissions, the final appellate bodies under the RTI Act. Critics fear the move will compromise the autonomy of the Commissions and weaken the transparency law.
RTI activists are in touch with political leaders, including Congress Parliamentary Party chairperson Sonia Gandhi, to rally support, sources told The Hindu .
‘Helping the corrupt’
In a tweet on Sunday evening, outgoing Congress president Rahul Gandhi accused the Centre of assisting in corruption by amending the Act. “Government is diluting RTI in order to help the corrupt steal from India. Strange that the normally vociferous anti-corruption crowd has suddenly disappeared. #GovtMurdersRTI,” he tweeted.
Activists want to take the battle against the amendments back to the RTI movement’s original roots as a mass people’s struggle. “Ultimately, the way to keep the issue in the spotlight is to have more people file more RTI petitions. We must exercise the right repeatedly in order to safeguard it,” said Anjali Bhardwaj, co-convener of the National Campaign for the Right to Information (NCPRI). “In the first stage, we plan to organise mass RTI filings on high-profile issues that the government cannot ignore. So there will be five questions on 10 different topics,” said Nikhil Dey, also a founder at NCPRI.
Some of the issues that could be pursued include defence expenditure, the Rafale case, the Prime Minister’s degree, the RBI’s list of large defaulters, non-performing assets of banks, industrial corruption, demonetisation impact, and the truth of employment and economic data. Activists hope to apply pressure on the government by keeping the public spotlight on the process of getting responses to these RTI requests.
“We also plan to launch a new mass campaign to have RTI acknowledged as a Constitutional right, and the Information Commissions recognised as Constitutional bodies. So far, the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan and the Suchna Evum Rozgar Adhikar Abhiyan are mobilising people for a new grassroots campaign. The NCPRI will take a decision after a meeting in August,” said Mr. Dey, associated with the leadership of all the organisations.
The government has justified the amendments on the grounds that the Information Commissions are statutory bodies, which cannot be given the same status as the Election Commission, a Constitutional body.
Some RTI activists hope to meet President Ram Nath Kovind in a last-ditch bid to persuade him against signing the Bill into law by reminding him of his own role in the original passage of the RTI Act in 2004. Mr. Kovind had then been a Rajya Sabha MP and a member of the Parliamentary Standing Committee which finalised the Bill. An early draft had proposed the Information Commissioners had a status equal to secretaries and joint secretaries. After six meetings, the standing committee proposed to elevate their status to be equal to Election Commissioners and Supreme Court judges in order to be able to perform their duties with full autonomy.
“You will recall this clearly since you were an important member of the committee and had made a significant contribution to its working. The present amendment proposed seeks to reverse only this part of the law in a very hurried manner,” said former Central Information Commissioner Shailesh Gandhi, in a letter to the President. “No plausible reasons are being given for reversing this well thought out wisdom and foresight shown by the committee.”
A legal challenge is also being considered. The Supreme Court has previously held that the Right to Information was a fundamental right under Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution. “A statutory amendment that makes the right illusory is subject to judicial review,” tweeted constitutional lawyer Gautam Bhatia.“We are talking to lawyers and exploring our legal options. We also intend to go to court over the government’s failure to obey the Supreme Court’s February order to fill up the four remaining vacancies on the Central Information Commission,” said Ms. Bhardwaj.