The Indian RTI Act is one of the best and seeks to codify citizen’s fundamental Right to Information guaranteed under Article 19 (1) (a). It recognizes that in a democracy the government belongs to its citizens who are the rulers. It gives citizens the right to own and access the information in government offices. However, government officials with their feudal attitudes find this difficult to accept. Hence, when designing the RTI Act in 2004-05, it was felt necessary to create an independent and autonomous body which could resolve the issue when citizens were wrongly denied information which they owned.

When officials deny information without the sanction of the law, citizens can approach the Information Commission which is the final appellate authority. Sometimes the Commissions’ order discloses information which unearths corruption or arbitrariness. The first draft of the RTI Act was presented to Parliament in December 2004 which had proposed the creation of Information Commissions as the final adjudicators to safeguard citizens’ right to information. It envisioned that the chief commissioner would be equated with secretary to government and other commissioners be equated with joint secretaries.

This bill was sent to the parliamentary committee in 2005, which discussed it extensively in six meetings. With respect to the terms of offices and powers and functions of commissioners, it proposed, “This is the essence of the bill in the sense that the mechanism of access to information will depend on effectiveness of this system. It should, therefore, be ensured that the Commission and its functionaries perform their duties independently and with complete autonomy. For this, it is necessary to elevate their status to that of the Election Commission of India."

Thus, the issue of status and salaries of the information commissioners was discussed extensively by the parliamentary committee which had many members from the BJP, including President Shri Ram Nath Kovind. In its wisdom it realized and recognized that to ensure the independence of the Commission, it was necessary to define its status fairly high and to link it with an established body. It, therefore, pitched for a high status so that their independence could not be affected. The tenure was also fixed at five years. These are the precise provisions the amendment bill is targeting. The salaries, status and tenure of commissioners are sought to be decided by the Centre. No rational explanation has been offered for this, to what was originally a recommendation of a parliamentary committee. The only reason stated in the statement of reasons is that the Election Commission is a constitutional body while the Information Commission is a statutory body. Hence, they cannot be equated. Constitutional positions are those which were envisaged and mentioned in the Constitution and statutory bodies are those which have been created by statute made by the Parliament. The argument is facetious. The National Human Rights Commission, National Green Tribunal and such tribunals are not bodies envisaged in the Constitution, but their heads are given the same status as the central election commissioners. It is also worth noting that this issue has not been raised by anyone in the last 14 years.

Since no reasonable explanation is being offered by the government, citizens are assuming that there are perhaps two agendas. One, to make the Information Commissions adjuncts of government by controlling their tenures and pay; two, to give the message that government can and will change whatever they wish, including weakening the fundamental rights.

Citizens must write to the President asking him not to sign the bill. In case we cannot stop this, we need to continue trying to persuade our government not to pursue this path. It is the duty and the right of citizens if we wish to safeguard our Constitution.

Shailesh Gandhi is a former central information commissioner.

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