During the 14th Annual Convention on RTI on October 12, former and sitting Information Commissioners expressed serious apprehensions over the amendments made to the Right to Information (RTI) Act, 2005 by the Narendra Modi government. The amendments in effect diluted the law and scaled down the stature of the Information Commissioners.
Home Minister Amit Shah and DoPT Minister Jitendra Singh thought it’s not relevant to even mention about the controversial amendment to the RTI act disturbing the independence of the Information Commissioners, in their speeches on the occasion.
However, diplomat-turned-politician Pavan K. Varma strongly criticised this amendment and said that Mahatma Gandhi would have resorted to Satyagrah in protest against such amendments to the law that has empowered the common citizens.
Union Home Minister Amit Shah who was the chief guest at the event, completely ignored the topic that has been widely debated in his 25 minutes of address. Shah presented profound admiration for the transparency law and claimed that it had bridged the gap between the people and the government and addressed mistrust.
The Home Minister explained in detail that Modi Government has taken various steps for proactive disclosure on its own which effectively reduced the need to file the RTI applications. He stated that success of governance could be gauged by the fact that number of RTI applications has come down and not by feeling great at the increase in the number of information requests.
As his narration progressed, leading to remove the necessity of not only RTI applications but also the information commissions, suddenly he found the need to remove such apprehension and chose to declare that information commissions would remain. The audience heaved a sigh of relief at that great assurance.
Another positive claim by the Home Minister was that the benefits to poor from RTI in last 14 years were greater than the apprehended misuse. He said he personally checked the dashboards for various schemes to know whether full information was available and only thereafter he was venturing to make a claim in the annual RTI meet at national capital.
“Modi Government created necessary infrastructure by way of fully equipped building for CIC, which was languishing in rented building,” said the Home Minister.
All those who were anxiously waiting to know the reason for reducing the status and stature of Information Commissioners were disappointed as the Home Minister finished the address without any comment on that. Former and present Commissioners from states were expecting the Home Minister to explain the need for such amendment or at least to disclose the status of Information Commissioners at states as well as Centre.
Most sought after points in the lobby and dining halls of Vigyan Bhavan were, “What will be the rank of the Commissioners; will it affect those who are already working; what will be the fate of newly appointed CICs with a condition that their service, status and salary would be as ‘prescribed by the Centre’.”
Government appointed Commissioners at CIC before the 2019 Amendment under a notification that their terms and conditions would be ‘as prescribed by Centre’ and not as per the RTI Act, 2005. Though three months passed after the amendment was assented to by the President, there were no rules prescribed by the Centre. The frequently asked questions in the convention were: Why are they not framed? Who will frame? Does it come to Ministry of Law? Etc.
Some persons brought rumours that rules were almost ready, and status was decided. Media persons were also found either inquiring or discussing the possibilities.
In the subsequent sessions a suggestion came from the audience that status and scales of wages of present Commissioners be protected; pension be rightly adjusted without detriment; and if a sitting Commissioner applies for post of Chief Information Commissioner, his status before amendment be protected.
Surprisingly Jitendra Singh, Minister of State for PMO and DoPT, the nodal agency for implementation of RTI, was also conspicuously silent on this amendment. He did not utter even a single word on it. If that amendment is essential and considered a great reform, why should not they claim credit for it. Through such well-thought-silence, the comment was loud and clear that the amendment was not worth to be referred!
One asked, “How were the inaugural speeches?” The other replied, “What was not spoken appears to be more significant than the spoken.”
Pavan Kumar Varma, while addressing next session on Gandhian thoughts and RTI emphatically stated that amendment was retrograde and not welcome. “Fixity of tenure and salary is important for the institution of IC. They cannot be as per the wishes or whims of the rulers. Though I do not doubt the intentions of the Government, I cannot agree with this amendment as its impact is going to be retrograde,” he added.
Varma did not hesitate to say that Mahatma Gandhi, if alive, would have sat on satyagraha to protest this amendment. “It is well established judicial principle that such an attempt to dilute the institution would weaken the power of citizen that was secured by right to information. The rights, especially the RTI, break the obesity of government fiefdom. Anything that could have perceived to be weakening the power of citizen, should be resisted. Gandhi would not have like it,” he explained.
Varma went on to declare: “If we do not take the side of something we think right, we will be considered as colluders.” The RTI lovers appreciated these comments with huge applause.
(Prof M. Sridhar Acharyulu is a former Central Information Commissioner and Dean, School of Law, Bennett University)