The Supreme Court on Monday criticised the Union government for having not filed a reply for over a year to a petition by parliamentarian Jairam Ramesh challenging the amendments made to the Right to Information Act.
The court, in January 2020, asked the Centre to file its reply to Mr. Ramesh’s plea that the amendments gave the government unparalleled powers to dictate the tenure, salaries and service conditions of the Chief Information Commissioner and Information Commissioners according to its “whims and fancies”.
“The notice was issued in January, 2020! What have you been doing? The vires of the RTI Act have been challenged,” a Bench of Justices D.Y. Chandrachud and M.R. Shah asked the government lawyers.
Two weeks time
The Bench gave the government two weeks to file its reply.
“The Modi government undermined the sanctity of the RTI Act in 2019 through amendments. Then when I challenged it in Supreme Court, the government failed to respond to the Court’s notice for more than a year! I hope that the government will take this matter seriously at least now,” Mr. Ramesh tweeted.
Mr. Ramesh, through advocate Sunil Fernandes, has contended that the RTI Amendment Act of 2019 and its Rules cripple the objectivity and independence of the Central Information Commission (CIC), the top adjudicatory body under the Act, by bringing under the yoke of the government.
The petition has argued that the very purpose of the Act, which is “a salutary piece of legislation aimed at promoting transparency in public administration and empowering the common citizen”, is denuded when the salaries and tenure of the information commissioners depend on the sheer pleasure of the government. The government and its various agencies are parties in every case filed before the CIC.
“The decision of the Central Government is binding upon the Information Commissioners. This allows unbridled and uncanalised discretionary power to the Central Government that jeopardises the independence of Information Commissioners. Given that post retirement benefits, pensions and allowances are not explicitly in these rules, the Central Government is granted absolute power to change these from time to time,” the petition has said.
The Amendment Act received the President’s assent on August 1, 2019.
Mr. Ramesh has challenged the various amendments, including the ones which change the earlier fixed tenure of five years for central and States’ information commissioners to “a tenure to be prescribed by the Central Government”.
Similarly, the petition has challenged Section 3(c) of the Amendment Act by which the Centre has “absolute powers” to prescribe the salaries, allowances and terms and conditions of the State information commissioners. Their salaries were previously fixed on par with that of Election Commissioners and State Chief Secretaries.