Activists and former information commissioners have hit out at the Centre’s move to amend the Right to Information (RTI) Act, saying it would dilute the Act and curtail the independence of the Chief Information Commissioner (CIC) and other information officers.
The Right to Information Act (Amendment) Bill, 2019, which was introduced in Parliament on Friday, proposes to empower the government to fix the term of service of information commissioners among other things.
Former CIC Shailesh Gandhi told The Hindu that the NDA government has offered no plausible reason as to why it is making these changes nor was there any pre-legislative consultation.
“The proposed changes to the RTI Act were introduced in complete secrecy without any public disclosure and consultation on draft legislations. The implication is the Centre wants to control the CIC and downgrade the function of State information commissioners (SICs), and that appointments of information commissioners are to be henceforth dictated by political patronage,” Mr. Gandhi said.
He said if the amendments were effected, it would weaken democratic institutions as the RTI Act thus far has proved to be the strongest and most effective tool ordinary citizens possess to hold accountable the powers that be.
Pune-based RTI activist Vijay Kumbhar said if the amendments came into effect, the Centre could simply transfer any authority — be it the CIC or any of the SICs — in the event a case was thought to be directed against the interests of the government or merely keep it hanging fire.
“The information commissions were created to function independently and free of any governmental pressure,” said Mr. Kumbhar, adding the status of information commissioners, including the question of the salaries of the CIC and the SICs, was discussed and fixed at the time of the formulation of the law.
“If this government indeed has a problem with their salaries and designation, it must be remembered that in 2017, the salary structures of 19 quasi-judicial administrative commissions were brought on par with that of the Supreme Court and High Court judges,” he said.
Meanwhile, in a release rejecting the amendments introduced by the NDA government, the National Campaign for Peoples’ Right to Information (NCPRI) demanded that they be withdrawn with immediate effect. “The contents of the draft amendments were not known to MPs, citizens, and the media till the Bill was circulated to members of the Lok Sabha on the eve of its introduction. The Bill seeks to amend the RTI Act to empower the Centre to unilaterally decide the tenure, salary, allowances and other terms of service of information commissioners at the Centre and in the States. The NDA government has done so by wilfully misrepresenting an amendment to a basic feature of the law, as a function of rule-making,” the release said.
It further said the RTI Act provides for a fixed tenure of five years for information commissioners (subject to the age limit of 65 years). “The salaries, allowances, and other terms of service of the chief of the Central Information Commission are the same as that of the Chief Election Commissioner. This is part of the basic structure of the existing law and therefore any amendment to these provisions undermines the basic structure of the RTI.”
Accusing the Central government of usurping the power to decide the tenure, salaries and allowances of SICs, it said the move indicates “the current government’s centralised, and undemocratic decision making.”
The NCPRI accused the Centre of instead sidelining a “wide array of pressing issues” that require the urgent government attention to ensure effective implementation of the RTI Act. These include making time-bound and transparent appointments to fill vacancies in information commissions, addressing the issue of attacks on RTI activists, implementing the Whistle Blowers Protection Act, and addressing the lack of transparency in electoral funding.