Amendments to RTI Act
With the passage of Right to Information Amendment Bill 2019 in the Lok Sabha, Opposition parties are up in the arms. Though the bill, which waits for the President's approval and gives power to Centre in deciding the terms of the commissioners, opposition is not in a mood to accept. While the Congress party claimed the amendment has dangerous, DMK termed it as a dark day for democracy.
What is the RTI Act 2005 ?
Right to Information Act 2005 is an act of the Parliament of India. It provides for setting out the practical regime of the right to information for citizens. Under the Act, any citizen of India may request information from a public authority (a body of Government or instrumentality of State) which is required to reply expeditiously or within thirty days. The Act also requires every public authority to computerise their records for wide dissemination and to proactively certain categories of information so that the citizens need minimum recourse to request for information formally. The central information commission is headed by a chief information commissioner and 10 information commissioners. They are appointed by the President (read central government) appoints them for a fixed tenure of five years and a salary of the rank of the chief election commissioner and election commissioners respectively. This was done to give the central information commission autonomy and protection from government interference.
What are the amendments?
In the 2019 RTI amendment bill, it amends Sections 13 and 16 of the Right to Information (RTI) Act, 2005. Section 13 of the original Act sets the term of the central Chief Information Commissioner and Information Commissioners at five years (or until the age of 65, whichever is earlier). The amendment proposes that the appointment will be “for such term as may be prescribed by the Central Government”. Again, Section 13 states that salaries, allowances and other terms of service of “the Chief Information Commissioner shall be the same as that of the Chief Election Commissioner”, and those of an Information Commissioner “shall be the same as that of an Election Commissioner”. The amendment proposes that the salaries, allowances and other terms of service of the Chief Information Commissioner and the Information Commissioners 'shall be such as may be prescribed by the Central Government'.
Why it is opposed ?
It means the government has the power to fix, the tenure of the official. This arbitrary power could be misused. In a political sense, means that any government can also threaten or lure the chief information commissioner and information commissioners to remove or extension and curtail or increase in salary depending upon their pleasure.
Some notable examples
In January 2017, acting on an application, on BA degree course, Information commissioner Sridhar Acharyulu ordered the Delhi University to allow inspection of records of students who had passed BA course in 1978. It should be noted that it was the same year the current rime Minister Narendra Modi passed the examination. But within a couple of days, Acharyulu was stripped of human resource development portfolio with immediate effect. In another example, the Reserve Bank of India had been directed on an RTI application. The activists asked RBI to provide details of the NPA in public sector banks and the details of big loan defaulters. But RBI had denied revealing information sought citing confidential nature. But the activists was strong and petitioned the Supreme Court, which first in 2015. As a result, top court directed the RBI to make the information available and reiterated the order in April this year after the central bank failed to comply with the order.
What does the government say ?
The government has continued to maintain that it has not never tinkered with autonomy or independence of any government body including the central information commission or election commission. Minister of State in the Prime Minister's Office Jitendra Singh while introducing the RTI Amendment Bill 2019 in the Lok Sabha said that the Modi government is correcting the anomaly in the RTI law passed by the UPA government. He also argued that the former government of the day, in a hurry to pass the RTI Act, 2005, missed and overlooked several things. The Central Information Commissioner has been given the status of a Supreme Court judge.
Even though the government claims it is planning to ‘rationalise’ the power and status of the authorities, the answer are quite surprising. It says that the Chief Election Commissioner is a constitutional functionary in the Indian governance, the CIC is only a statutory authority. And while the CEC is equal in status to a Supreme Court judge, it would be correct or appropriate for the CIC to enjoy the same power and authority as many orders from the examined by judiciary and judicial review. Given the extent to which the RTI Act has empowered citizens and helped break the hold of vested interests, one must be offer great importance when it comes to ammendments. The present amendments have not been put to any discussions or debates. So, being a democractically government, the bill should be sent to a parliamentary select committee for deeper scrutiny and analysis.