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August 19, 2019

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RTI Is Dead, Long Live RTI!


- Shivanand Pandit*, Financial and Tax Specialist [ Margao, Goa ]

Shivanand-Pandit

Recent amendments to the Right to Information (RTI) Act have restricted empowerment of Indian citizens as well as the independence of Information Commissioners...

India’s original Right to Information (RTI) Act 2005 viewed the legislation as a citizen’s basic right and recognized the virtues of empowered citizens questioning their government.

It implicitly recognized that that in a democracy where citizens elect their government, the government belongs to its citizens who are the ultimate potentates. It bestowed citizens the right to own and democratically retrieve the information in government organizations.

The fundamental aim of the original Act was to empower ordinary citizens, assure transparency as well as make the government liable for better governance. The original RTI Act helped unearth many scandals which the nation has seen since 2005. Empowered ordinary citizens acted as vigilant inspectors and discovered dishonest deeds of the government.

In 2004, the first draft of the original RTI Act which was presented to the Parliament had recommended the creation of Information Commissioners to protect citizens’ right to information. The Bill was discussed by the Parliamentary Committee comprehensively during six meetings.

The draft Bill had equated the Chief Information Commissioner with a secretary of the government and other information commissioners with joint secretaries. The RTI Act 2005 had its origins in the Supreme Court verdict which was pronounced in 1981.

Eroded Rights

However, recent amendments made to the Act in July 2019 are unfortunate. The Lok Sabha passed the RTI Amendment Bill 2019 within merely three days of its introduction.

Initially, the Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS), the YSR Congress Party and the Biju Janata Dal which defeated the BJP in recent elections opposed the Bill in the Lok Sabha. Yet, later they allowed the NDA government to have its way. Unfortunately, the Rajya Sabha also followed the footsteps of the Lok Sabha.

Although the opposition parties failed to put up a united front in their mad and crazy rush to pass the Amendment Bill, it gave rise to numerous mysterious and strange questions. Recent amendments to the original RTI Act have placed Information Commissioners under the mercy of the government and one more autonomous institution has become a caged parrot helplessly echoing his master’s voice.

The highly controversial amendments have convinced many citizens that the amended bill is an attempt to weaken the power of the original RTI Act. The provision which states that terms of office of the Central and State Information Commissioners will be decided by the Central Government is one such controversial amendment. The suggestion that remuneration and allowances of these officials, along with terms and conditions of their service will be regulated by the Central Government is also controversial.

Such spurious proposals seem to reveal the government’s underlying motive and effectively place the Information Commissioners’ autonomy under the mercy of a government which has absolute power.

Meanwhile, the government has also proposed to consider the Central Information Commissioners and the Election Commissioners differently, on the ground that both have different mandates.

Provisions RTI Act 2005 RTI (Amendment) Bill 2019
Term of Office At the Central and State level The Chief Information Commissioner and Information Commissioners eligible to hold office for a period of five years or up to an age of 65 years. The amended bill removes this provision and confers the power to the Central Government to notify the term of office for the Chief Information Commissioner and Information Commissioners.
Amount of Salary At the Central level the salary of the Chief Information Commissioner and Information Commissioners will be equivalent to the salary paid to the Chief Election Commissioner and Election Commissioners, respectively.

At the State level the salary of the Chief Information Commissioner and Information Commissioners will be equal to the salary paid to the Election Commissioners and the Chief Secretary to the state government, respectively.
The amended bill removes these provisions and confers the power to the Central Government to decide the salaries, allowances, and other terms and conditions of service of the Central and State Chief Information Commissioner and Information Commissioners.
Reductions in Salary At the Central and State level The Chief Information Commissioner and Information Commissioners at the time of the appointment if they are in receipt of pension or any other superannuation benefits for previous government service, their salaries will be lessened by an amount equal to the pension. The amended bill removes these provisions.

It must be borne in mind that by employing the RTI Act, citizens managed to unearth truckloads of otherwise difficult to obtain information, from village ration shops to the central bank of India. Empowered citizens raised numerous questions about demonetization, non-performing assets, defense deals, electoral bonds, unemployment issues, appointments of Central Vigilance Commissioner and Election Commissioners. Yet, the government has amended the original RTI Act and endangered all empowered initiative of citizens!

Haste Led To Waste

Prime stakeholders who utilize the Right to Information, besides Central and State Information Commissioners (both past as well as present), were kept in the dark and were not consulted at all before introducing recent amendments to the bill. The draft of the recently amended bill was not made available to members in advance and no time was allotted to them to study its pros and cons. Also, enough time was not given to parliamentarians between the introduction and discussion of the bill.

Thus, introduction of the amended bill effectively disregarded provisions of the Pre-Legislative Consultation Policy which stipulates that any draft legislation must be revealed to the public and discussed. Due to this, Members of Parliament, citizens and the media were kept in the dark about the contents of the Bill. All these actions have raised serious questions about transparency of the Bill.

It would be profoundly wrong to say that the RTI is not a constitutional right. The government’s contention that RTI is not a constitutional right cannot be upheld. After all, numerous judicial pronouncements of the Supreme Court have conferred the constitutional status to the RTI Act.

The ruling government is of the opinion that RTI Act was passed in a hurry in 2005, but the fact is that all its provisions were critically evaluated by the then Parliamentary Standing Committee after consulting governmental, non-governmental as well as related stake holders.

While the present government has claimed that amendments to the Act are “routine streamlining” and “rationalization of procedures”, the rude haste under which they were carried out, have practically undercut citizens’ right to be informed.

Citizens’ Battle

Not surprisingly, several proud and concerned Indians across the nation have exhibited their discontentment towards the government’s action of amending the RTI Bill and hijacking Indian democracy. It is sad that the government has weakened the originally strong legislation which empowered citizens to question the government.

Citizens who are sincerely bothered about the future of India should wake up immediately and decide to save the original Right to Information (RTI) Act. They must write to the President asking him not to sign the amended Bill. They must continue trying to petition the government not to follow this path, since it is the prime responsibility of citizens to safeguard their Constitution.

Additionally, citizens must force the government to return the amended Bill to a parliamentary select committee for its in-depth scrutiny and verification. It ought to be remembered that the government may amend a law but cannot stop a well-organized and united citizens’ movement. If ought to be understood by citizens that if they fail to save the original RTI, they will lose all power to question their elected government.

Sadly, there seems to be no public pressure on the government yet to stop it from murdering the true spirit of the original RTI Act. After all, food is the main priority of India’s poor people, and not transparency or freedom.

However, several informed citizens are aware that they have been deprived of their basic rights through a fog of false promises based on documents which are mentioned, but never publicized. Notably, as per the original RTI Act itself, these documents ought to have been made available to citizens or their elected representatives for perusal. That is precisely the main reason why citizens must oppose any law which makes the Right to Information misleading, deceptive or illusory and defeats it very purpose.

It must be remembered that although the erstwhile UPA government gave a huge gift to the country and its citizens in the form of the RTI Act, they failed to popularize it. On the other hand, the BJP utilized the RTI Act as a golden opportunity to expose the UPA government’s corruption and failures.

However, hasty amendments to the RTI Act makes citizens ask a valid question about why the ruling government is scared of RTI? Is it to be assumed that the government views RTI as a hindrance to its autocratic style of governance? Or is the government afraid that the RTI is strong enough to curb its excesses or absolute power? These questions ought to awaken citizens and remind them of the famous play ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf?’

*Disclaimer – The views expressed in this article are merely the personal views of the author and purely informative in nature.

 

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