Freedom of expression is under threat due to RTI Act amendments, say former Information Commissioners     

The Amendments that the BJP govt is bringing to the RTI Act will kill spirit behind it and it also threatens our Constitutional right, which is the Freedom of Expression

Photo Courtesy: NH
Photo Courtesy: NH

Ashlin Mathew

“It is not only the RTI Act, but also the Freedom of Expression is under threat with the Amendments proposed by the current BJP government. The point is that the right to information is an integral part of the Constitutional right under Article 19 1(a). The Supreme Court said this three time before 2005 and SC said it thrice after 2005. Even the government has said it is a constitutional right. After 14 years, how can you say that it is not a constitutional right,” insists M Sridhar Acharyulu, a former Information Commissioner.

“Whichever body enforces a constitutional right is a constitutional institution,” explains Acharyulu. “It is not necessary that they have to be there since the Constitution was passed. What about the National Human Rights Commission? Can anyone say that it is not a Constitutional body?” asked the former IC at a meeting organised in the Capital to protest the BJP government’s insistence on passing the RTI Amendments Bill without having sent it to a select committee. Three former Chief Information Commissioners and four Information Commissioners had come together to address the problems in the Bill introduced by the BJP government.

“Firstly, there was no pre-legislative consultation at all which is mandatory for such an important legislation. In 2017, the same government had rationalised and upgraded the salaries and post-retirement benefits of about 19 statutory bodies. Of case of 17 of them, their heads were made equivalent to the position of the EC. Now, if that was done, why is the Central Information Commission being downgraded. Right to Information is a fundamental right,” points out Deepak Sadhu, who was the first woman CIC.

“This Bill must be withdrawn,” stresses Acharyulu.

“There is no plausible reason given by the government for amending the RTI Act. It is one of the best Acts in the world for transparency and it is serving the people of India. It is making it possible to change the nature of this democracy, explained Shailesh Gandhi, who was an information commissioner and an RTI Activist.

“The only stated reasons are the Election Commission is a Constitution Body and the Information Commission is a statutory body. This is a completely flawed reasoning. They are saying that the EC and the Information Commission should not be at par. Another statement made is that it was done in a hurry by the government. The truth is that there was a Parliamentary Committee formed to recommend this and the President of India was a member of the Parliamentary committee. It had suggested that the EC must be equivalent of the IC so that their authority is recognised everywhere. It wasn’t done in a hurry,” underlines Gandhi.

The second argument being made is that the orders of the Information Commission can be challenged in a High Court and therefore, it is being implied that it is lower that the HC level. In reality, the orders of the President of India, CM and PM are challenged in a writ jurisdiction in the HC. By this logic, all these positions will have to be degraded. The government is not being honest,” points out Gandhi.

“Highlighting that the government’s move would weaken the RTI Act, Gandhi says, “What they want to do is control the commissions and this would weaken the RTI Act. The citizens must protest this. As a nation we were able to throw the British out and if we can’t even defend one of our fundamental rights, there is a problem.”

“Here is a system which has been functioning since 2004 without any issues. Now, the government ant to fix the salaries and tenure of the Information Commissioners. This was already fixed in 2004 when the Bill was sent to a Parliamentary Standing Committee and they also said it must be comparable to the CECs,” maintains Yashovardhan Azad, who recently retired as an Information Commissioner.

“Obviously, fixing the salaries and the term doesn’t mean it is going to be increased, so it means it is going to be decreased. And the reasons they are giving is that it is not a Constitutional body like the CEC. Both the CEC and CIC enforce a constitutional obligation and is Section 19 1(a), which is right to expression. Voting is a right to expression and so is speaking. How do you speak without getting knowledge and knowledge is from information. So, the CIC is enforcing the right to information, which is a Constitutional obligation. If before 1947, the RTI Act would have come to India, it would have found mention in the Constitution. Sweden got it in 1976,” underscores Azad.

“If the government now fixes the salary and the term of the ICs, does it mean that different commissioners will have different salaries and different terms? This Amendment also hits at the federal polity. If the Bill is passed, it means that the states will pay the salaries of the ICs but the Centre will fix their salaries and terms. Will any state allow this? This will lead to a conflict and that is why these Amendments are weak,” points out Azad.

“The government is not telling Parliament what will be status of the ICs, will it be joint secretary, cabinet secretary or upper division clerk? The Amendment states ‘as maybe prescribed’. If it is ‘as maybe prescribed’, then one set of people could have the status of a deputy secretary and another set of people could have the status of an upper division clerk. And if it is ‘as maybe prescribed’ by the government of the day, then why should Parliament pass this. Then different governments will pass different rules on this Commission,” adds Acharyulu.

Unlike most laws in this country, the RTI Act is mostly for the poor and they are the ones asking these questions. “This law is for the poor who ask questions on Municipality, ration, TDA, housing, electricity bills. So, if such cases are not heard under the umbrella of independence, then how can the person give an independent judgement? If you take away the independence of this commission, then a message goes down that this Commission is not capable of handling our pleas,” says Azad.

“Since 2005, Doordarshan had been running a programme called ‘Jaanane ka haq’ and it has been stopped. This programme was to create awareness among people about the RTI Act, so what is the message this government is sending,” asks MM Ansari, who was a former CIC

“There is kind of discrimination against the RTI Act as far the Central govt is concerned. The Constitution does not require the setting up of a body like the Central Vigilance Commission, yet a statutory body was established and recently salaries were hiked up. CIC is also a statutory body just like the CVC and both are performing the same function as the CVC. This government has no problem with the salaries of the CVC being hiked and yet, as far as CIC as concerned, though the Supreme Court has said that the Right to Information is one of the fundamental rights, the central government is willing to look askance,” explained Annapurna Dixit, who was also a former CIC.

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Published: 24 Jul 2019, 8:01 PM