‘Centre won’t take Central Information Commission’s orders seriously’

Wajahat Habibullah, India’s first Chief Information Commissioner. File

Wajahat Habibullah, India’s first Chief Information Commissioner. File   | Photo Credit: The Hindu

Panel members express apprehension, former members urge RTI (Amendment) Bill’s withdrawal.

With the RTI (Amendment) Bill having been passed by the Lok Sabha and now pending introduction in the Rajya Sabha, several Central Information Commission (CIC) members — past and present — have warned that the changes would have a chilling impact on the implementation of the RTI Act as originally envisioned.

“There is definitely a concern that our directives will not be taken as seriously by the government’s officials [if the amendments are approved as law],” a current CIC member said, speaking on condition of anonymity. “Today, we issue orders even to Secretaries of the Government of India. There is some kind of implicit fear. But if the status of the Commission is brought down, why would they bother?” The Bill proposes to allow the Centre to set the tenure and salaries of both State and Central Information Commissioners, leading to concerns that the autonomy and authority of the Commissions could be weakened. Currently, Central Information Commissioners hold a status equal to Election Commissioners and Supreme Court judges. The Centre has argued that this is an anomaly needing correction, as the CIC is a statutory body, while the Central Election Commission is a constitutional body. Current CIC members said the Centre had not formally asked them for their views on the Amendment Bill, and most were reluctant to express any opinion.

“You know what our worry is, but I cannot say anything,” said another member, who did not wish to be identified.

Former CIC members were more outspoken in their criticism.

‘Under obligation’

“If an Information Commissioner is beholden to the government for salary and tenure, then surely he is under obligation,” asserted Wajahat Habibullah, who was the first Chief Information Commissioner.

“Of course, he will have second thoughts even if he is a person of integrity. It gives the government leverage... and greatly compromises the authority of the law,” added Mr. Habibullah, who has joined six other former Commissioners in urging the Centre to withdraw the amendments.

“Everybody in power dislikes transparency,” said RTI activist and former Commissioner Shailesh Gandhi. “Even the UPA tried to amend the law, but it ultimately listened to people’s protests. This government does not seem to be listening to the people’s voices,” he asserted.

“The government is trying to suppress people seeking information, which is a suppression of the democratic process,” said former Commissioner M.M. Ansari, adding that Janane ka Haq (the right to know), a Doordarshan programme on the RTI Act, had been discontinued recently.

Sridhar Acharyulu, a law professor who recently retired as a Commissioner, noted that under the federal structure, the Centre could not decide salaries of State Commissioners, who were paid by States. Former Commissioner Annapurna Dixit pointed to the fact that other statutory bodies had had their status upgraded and alleged discrimination against the RTI Act.

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Printable version | Mar 30, 2020 3:53:38 PM |

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