New Delhi: The Rajya Sabha on Thursday passed the contentious Right to Information (Amendment) Bill, 2019, amid uproar among the Opposition, which said the changes diluted the crucial transparency law.
The bill, which now awaits President Ram Nath Kovind’s assent, will grant greater powers to the Centre in deciding the terms of the chief information commissioners (CICs) and information commissioners (ICs) at both the central and state levels.
Following protest during the voting, the Congress staged a walkout, saying the government was “undermining democracy" in the House.
The bill will escape scrutiny, with 117 members voting against referring it to a select committee and 75 voting for it.
“There is no attempt, motivation or design to curtail the autonomy of RTI," said Jitendra Singh, minister of state for personnel, public grievances and pensions.
The amendment bill provoked a sharp debate, with the Opposition, including Derek O’Brien of the Trinamool Congress, K.K. Ragesh of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), Binoy Viswam of the Communist Party of India, and Congress leaders Ghulam Nabi Azad and P. Chidambaram, vociferously demanding that it be referred to a select committee.
“The state government constitutes ICs. So, why are you taking the power to prescribe the tenure and terms and conditions of that appointment? Why can’t the state government do that? Can’t you trust the states to prescribe the tenure and terms and conditions of the appointment?" asked Chidambaram.
Singh rebutted by stating that the “matter of sending it to a select committee was the prerogative of the members but it should be determined on the merit of the bill".
“Why this amendment? A point was made that statutory bodies can also be conferred constitutional status. A CIC is equivalent to a chief election commissioner (CEC)—a verdict passed by CIC is liable to be challenged in the high court. So from a layman’s point of view, an SC judgement is being challenged in the HC," Singh added.
The bill was passed by the Lok Sabha on Monday, where the government is in a majority, amid strong protests.
The game changer for the Centre proved to be a U-turn by fence-sitters Biju Janata Dal (BJD), the Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS) and the YSR Congress Party in the Rajya Sabha, ultimately lending their support to the Bill.
“If you leave it to the whim of the government which changes terms of services then you are keeping a Damocles’ sword hanging as an instrument of power over an institution that is supposed to be independent—you are going to downgrade it and ultimately control it. You want to make sure commissioners are in your good books," said Congress member of Parliament Abhishek Manu Singhvi.
“State commissions need to be kept strong and need to be elevated to constitutional status and not level of a sarkari department," Singhvi said.
According to the RTI Act of 2005, the CIC and ICs at the central and state level will hold office for a term of five years, while the amendments specify that the Centre will in fact notify the terms of both the CIC and the IC.
The Bill also removes provisions of the salary of the CIC and IC being equivalent to those of the CEC and election commissioners at the central level and to those of the election commissioners and the chief secretary at the state level. It will now be determined by the government, according to the proposed amendments.
If the CIC or IC has been receiving pension, the government can, according to the amendment, revise or downgrade their salaries to match the amount of pension they receive.