The Centre did not take the Central Information Commission into confidence on its proposed amendments to the Right To Information Act (RTI), said outgoing Chief Information Commissioner (CIC) Radha Krishna Mathur, who retires on November 24, 2018.
Speaking to The Hindu on his last working day as CIC, Mr. Mathur said the Commission had discussed the proposed amendments internally. “We discussed it, but the Commission has chosen not to take a stand on the proposal.” Asked whether the government had consulted the Commission, which is the final appeal authority for information regarding any central public authority, Mr. Mathur said, “We were not asked.”
He refused to comment on the impact of the amendments on the functioning of the Commission or the implementation of the Act.
The government had planned to introduce the Right to Information (Amendment) Bill, 2018, in the Lok Sabha in July this year. But the Bill was not tabled following protests from civil society and the Opposition. The Bill proposes to give the Centre the power to decide the tenure and salaries of State and Central Information Commissioners. Critics have warned that the amendments undermine the independence and authority of the Commission.
While the Commission as a whole has not taken any official stance, several of the Commissioners have made their views public, signalling a split within the body. M. Sridhar Acharyulu, the only Commissioner without a background in government administration, had written a letter to his fellows soon after the amendments were made public, warning that the proposal would weaken the Commission.
At the annual RTI convention in October, Mr. Acharyulu and fellow Commissioner Yashovardhan Azad had publicly slammed the amendments, while another Commissioner, D.P. Sinha, had defended them, saying that there was nothing wrong with a “course correction” that would make the Act relevant.
Mr. Mathur, a 1977 batch IAS officer of Tripura cadre, has headed the Commission since January 2016. He was appointed soon after his retirement as Defence Secretary in 2015. Mr. Acharyulu and Mr. Azad both completed their tenures earlier this week, and a fourth Commissioner, Amitava Bhattacharya, will also retire on December 1, leaving the 11-member Commission with only three serving Commissioners.
The Centre had issued an advertisement to fill up existing vacancies in July, but had included no details on salaries or tenures, leading to concerns that it intended to re-introduce the RTI Amendments Bill in Parliament. The current law sets a tenure of five years and salaries which match those of Election Commissioners. “Bringing down the strength of the Commission will impact the work and increase pendency…There will be more delays,” admitted Mr. Mathur. During his tenure, pendency of cases had been reduced from about 35,000 to about 25,000, he said.
One of the biggest challenges for the RTI Act would be the issue of privacy, Mr. Mathur said. “The world is moving in both directions. There is an increasing demand for more privacy and more information. We need to find the right balance. There needs to be a public debate,” Mr. Mathur said.
However, he refused to comment on the recent recommendations of the Justice B.N. Srikrishna Committee on data protection to allow certain types of information to be exempted from disclosure under the RTI Act. Critics, including Mr. Acharyulu, have warned that this would shield corrupt government officials from public scrutiny and dilute the RTI Act.