RTI amendment bill: Modi govt wants to fix something which isn’t broken, says activist Anjali Bhardwaj

The Lok Sabha on July 22, passed the RTI (Amendment) Bill, 2019 with 218 votes in favour. The Bill intends to change the way the salaries and tenures of Information Commissioners (ICs) are fixed

NCPRI co-convenor Anjali Bhardwaj during a protest rally
NCPRI co-convenor Anjali Bhardwaj during a protest rally

Ashlin Mathew

The Lok Sabha on July 22, 2019, passed the Right to Information (Amendment) Bill, 2019 with 218 votes in favour of it and 79 against it. The Bill intends to amend the RTI Act and change the way the salaries and tenures of Information Commissioners (ICs) are fixed. It is now in the Rajya Sabha.

The co-convenor of the National Campaign for People’s Right to Information (NCPRI), Anjali Bhardwaj, says the government is attempting to fix something which is not broken.

National Herald caught up with Anjali Bhardwaj to understand the problems of the Bill being proposed.

What are problems with the RTI Amendment (Bill)?

The first problem with the Amendment is that it is trying to fix something that is not broken. In the 14 years since the implementation of the RTI Act, there is nothing to suggest that the salaries, tenure or the terms of service of the information commissioners have proven to be an implementation challenge.

We need to understand what the rationale behind these Amendments are; there has to be a reason for these amendments. No government should be able to decide one day that they want to amend laws, especially the ones which are working well.

The problems with the Bill are many. The government is now trying to say that instead of a fixed tenure of five years, subject to the retirement age of 65 years, the Central government will empower itself to decide what the tenue of the Information Commissioners will be. The second thing they are doing is that instead of the terms of services, allowances and salaries being at the level of the Election Commissioner, which is the same as a Supreme Court judge, the central government wants to usurp for itself the power to decide these.

We know that if we want an institution to function independently, the government or the executive should have no role in deciding the tenure and the salaries of the functionaries. In this case, the law already exists and there is no problem with it. The government is just wanting to now say after 14 years of its implementation that they will take it in their hands. The fundamental problem is them trying to control the institution. This will undermine the autonomy of the Information Commission and what will happen is that the Commission will be wary of passing orders for disclosure of information that might be seen as inconvenient or embarrassing by the government.

We have to understand that the RTI law in India is being used extensively by citizens. We have 4 to 6 million RTI application every year and they are using it to question the highest officers of the country. They are using it to expose big-ticket corruption, expose wrong-doing, human rights violations. Information on all of this is not something governments want to give. The role of the Commission is to direct, without fear or favour, the government to give information even if it doesn’t want to give information. This will be impacted if the autonomy of the Commission is compromised.

This is what the Bill seeks to do.

How is this government justifying the need for these Amendments?

The government’s contention of a constitutional body vs a statutory body is completely bogus, for the simple reason that there is nothing in the Constitution or any law, which says this cannot be allowed. If the government wants to work on a whim, there is nothing anyone can do.

In fact, this is a practice that is being followed quite frequently, whether it is the Lokpal law or the CVC, the status of the Commissioners is kept at the level of Constitutional bodies.

If the government was so concerned about the RTI Act, they should move an amendment to enhance the status of the Information Commission to that of a Constitutional body. There is nothing which stops the government from moving this amendment. Clearly, what is happening is that the will of the government is that they don’t want people to have information. They understand that a wide range of people across the country use the law to access the information and they cannot do anything to control them, so now they are attempting to control the institution that enables these people.

Information on demonetisation, NPAs, loan defaulters and unemployment figures are some of the figures that the government doesn’t want released, and whenever it is denied, the Commission orders the government to release it. And the government finds it inconvenient.

The Modi government has been saying that they have been decisive against corruption…

If somebody is truly committed to fighting corruption, then they have to be transparent. People have to be able to see what is happening. Giving oneself a clean chit isn’t what will suffice. RTI law actually allows people to look in and see what is happening. The government can’t say ‘we will not give you information but take our word for it that we are not corrupt’. So, the government giving itself a clean chit is not going to help. If the government is truly committed to fighting corruption, then the records will have to be shared and they will have to show it too.

Could you give a few highlights of the existing RTI law?

The RTI law has been one of the most empowering legislations in independent India. It is actually decentralised power in a democracy and taken our country closer to being a participatory democracy, because for the first time, it gave people a practical right to question what the government is doing on their behalf.

It’s been used by people to get even the basic of rights such as their ration, pension, health, education to asking about information regarding big contracts, defence and mining deals. This law has been owned by people of this country.

Do you think this government has a lot of hide and hence they are moving this Amendment?

This government has been hesitating to give a host of information to citizens without any rationale. It would clearly seem that the government doesn’t want to open itself to public scrutiny and be answerable to people. This shows that they have no political will to be transparent, otherwise there is no reason to being out these Amendments. And they are doing it despite public protests and Opposition members creating a hue and cry.

This government wants to work in a completely opaque manner and that is clear. Look at the Bills, including the RTI Amendment Bill, being brought in without any information being put out in the public domain about the contents about any of these Bills. They don’t share anything with citizens, which is in contravention of all principles of transparency and also in violation of the RTI law. So, the government is notworking transparently or even allowing proper deliberations on these laws through standing committees.

People had even opposed the introduction of this law and even then, it was introduced in the Lok Sabha. The demand was to send it to the standing committee and now we are demanding for it to be sent to the select committee of the Rajya Sabha.

What will happen if the government gets to pass this law today?

If the government is able to pass it today, then the people will continue to demand even from the President that the Bill should not be allowed to go through. The reality is that even if it becomes a law, then it will be a huge dilution of people’s right to information.

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Published: 24 Jul 2019, 3:16 PM