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Any dilution of the legislation, which is being used so effectively to show the truth to power, would be detrimental for the country. – Right to Information (Amendment) Bill 2018 or RTI (Amendment) Bill is not a good step.
The Right to Information Act 2005 is considered to be one of the strongest transparency legislation in the world. According to Transparency International close to 2.5 crores, RTI applications were filed between 2006 and 2016, making the RTI one of the most widely used pieces of legislation in the world. The Modi government has listed a Bill in the current session of Parliament to amend the Right to Information (RTI) Act, 2005. There are several reasons why the proposed amendments weaken the RTI act and must be opposed by everyone concerned about the health of India’s democracy.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi had famously said ‘na khaaunga, na khane dunga’ referring to how his administration would keep corruption at bay. “If fighting corruption is their goal, why do they want to weaken the RTI?” the Right to Information (Amendment) Bill 2018 attempts to dilute the independence of Central and State Information Commissioners besides giving undue powers to the Government of the day to appoint Commissioners with an uncertain term, status and salary.
Diluting the act
The RTI law fixes the tenure of information commissioners at five years, subject to the retirement age of 65 years. The salaries, allowances and other terms of service of the chief of the Central Information Commission are fixed at the same level as that of the chief election commissioner. Those of the central information commissioners and state chief commissioners are on a par with election commissioners. The chief and other election commissioners are paid a salary equal to the salary of a judge of the Supreme Court, which is decided by Parliament. The amendments seek to empower the central government to decide the tenure, salaries, allowances and other terms of service of all information commissioners in the country. This is a clear attempt to undermine their independence as it would potentially make commissioners compliant with the wishes of the government at the Centre, lest their tenures or salaries are adversely impacted.
Autonomy of the Information Commission
The Amendment Bill which has been introduced in the Rajya Sabha for consideration and passage attempts to change the tenure of information commissioners at the centre and the states from “a term of five years” to “terms as may be prescribed by the central government”. One of the recent high-profile examples where the Information Commission used its autonomy was in 2016. When questions were raised about Prime Minister Modi’s undergraduate degree, the Central Information Commission directed Delhi University to allow inspection of its records from 1978 – the year Modi claims to have graduated from the University. Subsequently, the institution filed a plea asking the Delhi High Court to set aside the commission’s order.” If the latest changes come into force, the autonomy of the Information Commissions will be under threat.
Dent to the federal structure
The latest amendments will severely weaken the federal structure of the country by taking away from the powers of the State Information Commissions (SIC). “Why does the Centre want to control information given out by the states?”
“When food doesn’t reach the ration shops for weeks, when there is no teacher appointed to your children’s school and when essential medicines don’t reach the primary health care centres in your village that is when an RTI becomes essential.” The amendment will reduce the worth of the State Information Commission and therefore force the information seeker to approach the court more often.
Excessive delegation of powers
The bill not only proposes to weaken the transparency but enables the central govt. to approach upon the sovereignty of the state govt. While the RTI Act of 2005 insulated Information Commissioners from political vagaries, the Bill of 2018 makes them subject to it. The Central Government will prescribe the term and salary of the Commissioners by issuing notifications from time to time. This means that the Government need not go to Parliament to amend RTI Act, but it can simply issue a notification either to reduce or increase the term of a particular batch of Commissioners and their salary. The Government at ‘x’ time can say the CIC will have three years of life, and for next batch of recruits prescribe two years only. Fixed term plus higher rank and difficult process to remove makes the CIC independent. Uncertain term and salary changeable by executive notification reduce CIC to an obedient subordinate.
The RTI Amendment Bill has been drafted in complete contravention of all principles of pre-legislative consultation. The proposed amendments were not placed in the public domain prior to being listed in Parliament. This precluded any possibility of citizens expressing their views, suggestions and concerns about the contents of the Bill. “The text of the proposed RTI Amendment Bill must be immediately put in the public domain, along with reasons for proposing the changes, to enable wide discussion and public debate before it is introduced in Parliament. An effective participatory consultative process must be adopted to invite public comments and suggestions on the proposed legislation.”
Finally, the RTI Act has been used extensively by citizens to question the highest offices in the country. People have used the law to verify the educational qualifications of elected representatives and sought information about assets held by public servants. Innumerable big-ticket scams, like the Vyapam scam and the Adarsh scam, have been unearthed using the RTI Act. The law has given people an opportunity to closely monitor the functioning of their government and participate meaningfully in the process of governance. Any dilution of the legislation, which is being used so effectively to show the truth to power, would be detrimental for the country.
Public and political opposition to the RTI Amendment Bill has forced Modi to defer its introduction in Parliament. One hopes that the government will drop the idea of amending this seminal piece of legislation. In the meantime, there is little choice but to collectively oppose the onslaught on our fundamental right to information.
By – Nancy Garg,
SRM University, Sonepat, Delhi NCR, 2nd year
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