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The NDA Government today introduced the RTI Amendment Bill, 2019 in the Lok Sabha (July 19, 2019). The proposed amendments violate basic federal principles of the Constitution, are regressive and are aimed squarely at undermining the independence of Information Commissions, thereby diluting India’s strongest and most widely used framework for transparency.
It is a matter of grave concern that the amendments to the RTI Law were introduced in complete secrecy and in flagrant violation of the Pre-Legislative Consultation Policy of Ministry of Law which mandates public disclosure and consultation on draft legislations. Owing to the undemocratic way of its introduction, the contents of the draft amendments were not known by MPs, citizens and the media till the bill was circulated in the Lok Sabha today.
The bill seeks to amend the law in order to empower the Central Government to unilaterally decide the tenure, salary, allowances and other terms of service of Information Commissioners at the Centre and States. The NDA Government does so by wilfully misrepresenting an amendment to a basic feature of the law, as a mechanism of rule-making.
Enabling the Executive to govern the functioning of the Commissions will fundamentally weaken the institution of the Information Commissions as it will adversely impact their ability to function in an independent manner. The Information Commissions are the final authorities to adjudicate on claims of access to information which is a deemed fundamental right under the Constitution. The RTI Act confers an autonomous status to Commissions to empower them to carry out their functions independently so as to enforce compliance of the highest offices with the provisions of the law. Further, the Central government usurping for itself the power to decide even the tenure, salaries and allowances of information commissioners of the State Information Commissions, raises key issues of federalism, and is a continuing indication of this current Government’s centralized, and undemocratic decision making.
The principle of according a high stature, and protecting the terms of service by equating it to functionaries of constitutional bodies, is routinely adopted for independent statutory oversight bodies, including the Central Vigilance Commission and the Lokpal. As the RTI Act stands today, it provides for a fixed tenure of 5 years for information commissioners (subject to the age limit of 65 years). Further, the salaries, allowances and other terms of service of the Chief of the Central Information Commission are the same as that of the Chief Election Commissioner. This is a part of the basic structure of the existing law and therefore any amendment to these provisions undermines the basic structure of the RTI.
The status of information commissioners was extensively discussed during the formulation of the law, including by the Standing Committee. In fact, the Standing Committee opined, “ Information Commission is an important creation under the Act which will execute the laudable scheme of the legislation …It should, therefore, be ensured that it functions with utmost independence and autonomy.” It recommended that to achieve this objective, it would be desirable to confer on the central chief information commissioner and information commissioners, status of the chief election commissioner and election commissioners respectively. The committee’s recommendation to elevate the status of information commissioners was accepted and passed by parliament unanimously through an extensive process of public and Parliamentary consultation.
There is a wide array of far more pressing issues which require the urgent attention of Government to ensure the effective implementation of the RTI Act and to promote higher standards of transparency in public life. These include:
- making time bound appointments to fill the large number of vacancies in Information Commissions. 08 of the 11 Information Commissioners mandated under the RTI Act have not been appointed by the NDA Government
- Addressing the lackadaisical implementation of the RTI Act where the pendency of RTI requests jumped from 8.5 lakhs (in 2014-’15) to 14.5 lakhs (in 2017-’18), with 40% of the cases being rejected by the Commission in 2018.
- Implementing the Whistleblower Protection Act to address the issue of attacks on information seekers and initiate time bound inquiries criminal action against those found responsible for the murder of more than 80 RTI users across the country.
- addressing poor implementation of Section 4 of the RTI Act to strengthen mandatory pro-active disclosure, the lack of which was acutely felt in some of this Government’s most wide sweeping policies such as demonetization.
- Addressing the complete lack of transparency in electoral funding with electoral bonds allowing anonymous political funding, subsequent to which the BJP’s funding has jumped up 12 times. 95% of anonymous donations have been made to the BJP.
It is inexplicable that instead of addressing some of the above mentioned structural issues that are currently undermining the RTI Act, the NDA Government decides to focus on means to undermine the independence and autonomy of the Authorities tasked with the implementation of the RTI Act. This latest legislative sleight is another example of the BJP’s characteristic intention to disempower democratic institutions of this country.
The RTI Act is used by nearly 4-6 million citizens of the and has demonstrated to be the strongest tool in the hands of ordinary citizens to realize their fundamental right to know and hold power to account. The Law’s passage in the Parliament in 2005 was a victory for peoples’ movements and campaigns that represented the will and intention of lakhs of citizens to keep democracy alive.
The NCPRI wholly rejects the amendments introduced by the NDA Government, and demands that they be withdrawn with immediate effect. The NCPRI also would like to remind the Government to follow due process in carrying out its legislative business and ensure that all draft legislative amendments be introduced and discussed with prior notice and through the Standing Committee. The NCPRI will oppose these amendments and mobilise public opinion , so that this peoples law is protected .