NEW DELHI : A critical piece of legislation that seeks to amend the landmark transparency law, Right to Information (RTI), was passed by the Lok Sabha on Monday amid strong protests by all key Opposition parties. To become a law, the bill will now need the approval of the Rajya Sabha, where the government is in a minority.

The Right to Information (Amendment) Bill, 2019, passed with a voice vote in the Lower House, seeks to empower the central government on deciding the terms of chief information commissioners and information commissioners at both the central and state levels, as well as have a say on the salaries, allowances and other terms and conditions of service.

Several members of Opposition had called for a division of votes when consideration and passage of the bill was sought. It was defeated by 218-79 votes. Some members of Opposition also staged a walkout.

“From the beginning of its first term in 2014, the Prime Minister Narendra Modi-led government has brought transparency in governance for greater public participation," Jitendra Singh, Union minister of state for personnel, public grievances and pensions, told the House while defending the Bill.

“There is a provision that suo-motu you should provide maximum information in public domain so that the number and the need for RTIs reduces. In five years, we have made changes so that things are uploaded faster on websites," he said, adding that the amendments will streamline functioning and remove anomalies.

But Opposition members accused the Union government of seeking to weaken the law by gaining more control over the working of the information commissions. Several members unsuccessfully demanded that the bill be withdrawn and referred to a parliamentary committee for scrutiny.

The Congress’ Karti Chidambaram said the government should not use its “303 to massacre the spirit" of the Act, referring to the strength of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the Lok Sabha. The Dravida Munnetra Kazhagham’s (DMK’s) A. Raja said if the proposed amendments were voted through, information commissioners will become the “house maid" of the government.

“This is a deliberate attempt to weaken the RTI Act…The government can hire and fire information commissioners as they like, pay them as they chose and it will affect institutional integrity. This is the reason why, when it was introduced, I had said that this is not an RTI amendment bill but an RTI elimination bill," senior Congress leader and former Union minister Shashi Tharoor told the House.

The protests in the Lok Sabha spilled over to the streets with the New Delhi-based National Campaign for Peoples’ Right to Information (NCPRI) holding a protest demonstration that was attended by transparency activists, opposition leaders and the common people.

“The proposed amendments are aimed at undermining the independence of information commissions, thereby diluting India’s strongest and most widely used law for transparency," an NCPRI press release said on Monday.

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