Parliament must rise to prevent govt’s bid to dilute the RTI Act

Amendments being moved by the Modi Government dilutes the RTI Act, usurps the right of states and deprives citizens a realistic chance of forcing government agencies to part with information

Parliament must rise to prevent govt’s bid to dilute the RTI Act

M. Sridhar Acharyulu

The Right to Information (Amendment) Bill, 2019 will be akin to back- stabbing the Central Information Commission and deal a deadly blow to the Right to Information Act.

It seriously undermines the autonomy of Information Commissions because it reduces the stature of Commissioners, which is now equivalent to Election Commissioners and Judges of the Supreme Court. Ever since it came into existence in 2005, the Information Commission had enough authority to issue directions to anybody including the Cabinet Secretary, Principal Secretary, etc regarding disclosure of information under the RTI Act.

As of now the Information Commissioners have a fixed tenure of five years or the age of 65 years, whichever is earlier. It is difficult to remove the Information Commissioners from office within this term.

But once this Bill is passed, the guaranteed term of five years will be removed. The Bill, if it becomes the law, will remove legislative safeguards to the terms of Information Commissioners and the Government of the day will be empowered to prescribe any term, stature or salary.

The statements of objects clearly state that CIC is not equal to CEC and hence they are amending the law to reduce the stature. It is not clear as to what kind of reduced status they are going to accord to the CIC and SIC. For the state or the central commission, the Government may prescribe the minimum requirement of a Joint Secretary rank and a three-year term, or prescribe a four or two year term. Or it may favour ‘lateral entry’ with six year term and higher salary.

The Legislature did not give this power to the Executive in the 2005 Act. But now the Executive is usurping this power from the Legislature, without assigning any justification. It will seriously dent the independence of the Commissioners and make them subordinate to government departments.

Already Governments are choosing retired and loyal bureaucrats as Information Commissioners s so that they do not independently act according to the RTI Act. With this Bill, people selected as ICs with reduced stature, terms and salary will be even more submissive to Chief Ministers, Prime Ministers and Ministers, depriving citizens of their Right to information. This will kill the Right to Information Act totally.

The Bill is based on two false propositions – that RTI is not a Constitutional Right and secondly earlier Parliament (Government) erred in its hurry while equating CIC with CEC.

The Supreme Court has proclaimed the Right to Information as the Constitutional Right emanating from Article 19(1)(a) which guarantees freedom of speech and expression. The Central Election Commission enforces the right to vote, which is part of expression right under Article 19(1)(a) which is further explained in Article 324.

In a way, the CEC enforces only a small part of the Expression Right, while the CIC is entrusted with enforcement of the wider aspects of the Right of expression- Right to information. ‘

Without receiving right information, no citizen can express his views or criticise the wrong policies of the Government. If the RTI requests are answered as per the law, it will directly impact governance, especially public delivery systems and expose corruption, which is widespread in lakhs of government offices spread all over the country.

This Bill 2019 thus adversely affects Right to Information and Article 19(1)(a) by undermining the independence of Information Commissions by facilitating the Government of the day with huge power of meddling with the stature of Commissioners.

Through this Bill, put before the MPs, the Government is asking for more powers to reduce the authority of Information Commissioners by diluting their guaranteed terms in office and privileges. It amounts to a radical dilution of the scheme and system that have been working for nearly one and a half decades.

If the Parliament approves this Bill, Information Commissions will become appendages and extensions of ministries and senior bureaucrats. Which Joint Secretary level Information Commissioner will dare to direct the Secretaries to reveal information to citizens?

I appeal to MPs in both the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha to oppose the Bill and ensure that it is rejected. The responsibility lies more on members of Rajya Sabha (Council of States) because they represent states, whose power to appoint independent Commissioners is being usurped and being given to the Centre.

(The author is a former Central Information Commissioner)

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