Amendments to the Act will impact the independence of the Central Information Commission, say analysts
Academics, activists and former information commissioners argue that however minor the RTI amendment may seem, the intention was to impose a self censorship
NEW DELHI :
Standing under a cloudy evening sky in Lutyens’ Delhi, two former information commissioners indulged in friendly banter. “It’s you and your order which has brought us to this amendment now…had you refrained from touching that subject, it would have been a different situation," said one. The other smiled and responded: “Censorship...even you believe this."
Academics, activists and former information commissioners argue that however minor the RTI amendment may seem, the intention was to impose a self censorship, create fear and “destroy the fundamentals of the original RTI Act 2005". They argue that the amendment seeks to put indirect pressure on the offices of information commissioners to restrict the flow of information primarily related to government.
“They are not small changes, but fundamental amendments to destroy the Act. When appeals come to the commissions, the commissioners will be scared to deliver rulings related to important government offices," said Jagdeep S. Chhokar, a retired IIM-Ahmedabad professor, and founding member, Association of Democratic Reforms.
The original Act says the chief information commissioner (CIC) and other information commissioners are appointed at the national and state levels to implement the provisions of the Act. It says the CIC and ICs, both at the Centre and state level, will hold office for five years. The present amendment empowers the central government to notify the terms of office for CICs and ICs.
The 2005 Act states that the CICs and ICs are in the same pay grade as the chief election commissioner and election commissioners, respectively. Similarly, the salary of the CICs and ICs (at the state level) will be equivalent to the salary paid to the election commissioners and the chief secretary to the state government, respectively. The amendment will now allow the Centre to determine the salaries, allowances, and other terms and conditions of service of central and state CICs and ICs.
The Centre is usurping the power of Parliament through these amendments, said M. Sridhar Acharyulu, a former information commissioner. “Information commissioners could survive only because the law prescribed their tenure. One could not disturb them until they completed a five-year term or 65 years of age. We would have been finished long ago had there been no such rule in the Act," he said.
A law that deals with people’s access to information was amended without going to the people for a debate, said Yashovardhan Azad, another former information commissioner. The argument that the CIC and CEC are not comparable and, therefore, the amendment is needed is not reasonable, he said. “Voting is a right to expression and speaking is a right to expression. How do you speak without knowledge? So, CIC enforcing right to information is a fundamental right," he said.
The government will not have unbridled powers to amend the rules and there is no motivation to curtail the independence of the information commissioners, Jitendra Singh, minister of the department of personnel and training said in the Rajya Sabha last week.
Government officials argue that the rejection rate of RTI queries are going down at the central level and in 2017-18 it was only 4%. However, the rejection rate in some of the top ministries are much higher, with the home ministry recording 15% denials. The figure for the finance ministry stood at 14%.
The amendments pose more questions than answers on the need for the changes in the Act. The RTI Act has been facing opposition from many quarters of the government since 2005. An information commissioner had said that he has written to the Prime Minister (Manmohan Singh) in his personal capacity that “certain forces within the government were working to render the RTI Act ineffective", according to the minutes of the first CIC meeting on 8 December 2005, .
Anjali Bhardwaj, co-convenor of the National Campaign for People’s Right to Information (NCPRI), says the RTI law of 2005 was an “empowering legislation for the people", as five to six million applications are filed every year seeking information on a range of issues from education to health, to ration cards. Some questions were asked about the highest offices in governments, both at the Centre and the states, she said. The present amendment is a “clear attempt to undermine the autonomy of the commission and commissioners. As citizens we are extremely worried", she said. The amendments will have a direct bearing on the delivery of rulings at commissions, Bhardwaj said.
“If the government is regulating terms, salary, then while delivering rulings, the commissioner will think twice, may get scared about giving orders that the government is not comfortable with. Hence, the independence of the commissions is a necessity," explained Chhokar.