The Rajya Sabha has passed the Right To Information (RTI) Amendment Bill, 2019, which directly amends the RTI Act, 2005, aimed at making the government more accountable. The bill was passed despite strong protests from the opposition benches that saw the proceedings of the house disrupted for a day.
Earlier, the amendment was passed in the Lok Sabha on July 22 with 218 'yes' votes and '79' no votes, three days after it was introduced by Minister of State, Prime Minister's Office, Dr. Jitendra Singh.
The bill has already generated a furore - among the opposition and former RTI commissioners - over the potentially ominous path citzens' right to information has been forced to take.
BOOM tells you all you need to know regarding the changes that will follow.
What is the RTI Act, 2005?
The RTI Act in 2005 was passed to lay the groundwork of a process to put information available with public authorities in the public domain, making functions of every public authority transparent and more accountable.
In addition, the Act also laid down the provisions for establishing the Central and State Information Commissions, and positions of the Chief Information Commissioner (CIC) and Information Commissioners (IC).
The Act also laid down the equivalence of status of the CIC/IC, who is at par with the Chief Election Commissioner/Election Commissioners, who in turn are at par with Supreme Court judges. All of them enjoy the same benefits and draw the same remuneration. The Act also lays down the tenure of the Information Commissioners - which is for five years.
The RTI Act, 2005 can be found here on the official website of the Right to Information (rti.gov.in).
What will the amendment change?
The amendment will change the Act in three respects.
The first of these changes deals with their tenure. The amendment looks to change the tenures of the CICs/ICs - from five years to a term set by the central government.
The second change pertains to their pay grade. While the RTI, Act 2005 determines the status and remuneration of these commissioners equivalent to their Election Commission (EC) counterparts, the amendment seeks to give the Center the power to determine their salaries as well.
The third change to this Act does away with a clause counting pensions that are being received by any commissioners from any other previous government services against their salaries.
Why has this amendment been introduced?
It states that while EC is a constitutional body established by Article 324 of the Constitution of India, the Information Commission is a statutory body established by the RTI Act, 2005. Therefore, the functions being carried out by the both these authorities and their general mandate is completely different. Hence, this amendment is a step towards rationalising their status and service conditions.
Why are the opponents worried?
The RTI Act, in its current form, provides information commissions with the teeth it needs to seek information from public authorities.
These commissions can inquire for any person on incomplete or missing complaints, probe into false or improper information and can even order compensation for a person if they feel that he has been wrongly charged financially. Chapter 5 of the RTI Act goes so far as giving these commissions the powers equal to civil courts on matters pertaining to summons, gathering oral and written evidence and ordering public records.
These commissions derives these powers from the autonomy given to them by the Act. According to the amendment, if the central government gets down to determining the tenures and salaries of these commissioners, it would be a direct assault on their ability to function, and could potentially have to toe the line of the government.
Former CIC Wajahat Habibullah told The Print that the ICs will be like employees of the government, and if they so wished, they could withhold information that could potentially embarrass the government.
In fact, the amendment is part of a series of recent measures to undermine the RTI Act, which includes:
- Slashing the budget for RTI in the budget - from ₹9 crores to ₹5.5 crores -- almost 39% -- year-on-year (read here)
- Keeping the positions of information commissioners vacant for years, partially filled only in December 2018 (read here)
Former Chief Information Commissioner, Shailesh Gandhi, doubted the reasons officially provided by the government in their statement of reason in Bloomberg.
He also said the commissioners of bodies pertaining to children, women, minorities and human rights are opaquely elected, who in turn tend to follow the government's desires. This contrasts the information commissioner, who functions independently and takes decisions that the government may not like.
This move appears to be in order to downgrade them and make them caged parrots mimicking His Master’s Voices.
Gandhi added that their autonomy and independence is vital to deliver transparency to citizens.
Gandhi wrote a post on Facebook where he expressed his reservations.
What have former information commissioners said?
In an article reported by The Print, seven information commissioners have deemed the amendments as:
....a direct attack on autonomy of information commissions and people’s fundamental right to know
They further asked government to retract this "regressive amendment".
Former IC Yashovardhan Azad, who retired last year, said:
The RTI Act has been functioning for the last 14 years without any problem regarding the tenure and status of information commissioners.
.... the amendment bill was a clear attempt by the government to control the tenure and salary of information commissioners and the government seeking these powers would most probably lead to a downgrade.
Who has said what on this bill?
Leaders from the opposition benches have come out to protest this amendment, calling it an infringement on public transparency, and that this makes the RTI Act, 2005 less effective.
Chairperson of the Congress Parliamentary Party, Sonia Gandhi, also released an open letter against the amendment.
Dr. Jitendra Singh of the ruling BJP though reaffirmed the direction that the government was taking.
Meanwhile, the BJP have refuted the criticism calling the concerns raised by opposition parties and former officials of the commission, as fear-mongering.