New Delhi: The Right to Information Act is regarded as one of the most successful and effective laws of independent India empowering citizens to hold public functionaries accountable for their actions and bring transparency in the system.
In the last 14 years, the RTI has resulted in a dynamic shift in the country’s democracy giving a powerful tool to the common people to raise their voice against arbitrariness, privilege, and corrupt governance.
But now the Modi government is trying to weaken the Act through the controversial amendment Bill, the Right to Information (Amendment) Bill, 2019, which was passed in the Lok Sabha on July 22, three days after it was introduced in the Parliament.
The BJP-led Central Government had proposed to bring in an amendment to the RTI Act 2005 last year but could not move forward due to widespread criticisms. But it has revived the plan now and the Lok Sabha passed the Bill.
The RTI Amendment Bill 2019 proposes to change the tenure of the Central Information Commissioner (CIC) and the Information Commissioners (IC) at the central and state levels.
At present, the tenure is for five years or till the attainment of 65 years of age. This is to be changed to a “term as may be prescribed by the central government.”
The Bill also seeks to make changes in their salaries and allowances “as may be prescribed by the central government.” At present, the terms of service and salaries of the CIC and the ICs are the same as those of the Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) and the Election Commissioners (EC) respectively.
The amendments will compromise the autonomy and independence of the CIC and the information commissioners and thus the RTI system itself.
A free hand for the government to decide the tenure of the CIC and the ICs will mean government control over them.
The deliberate dismantling of this architecture empowers the Central government to unilaterally decide the tenure, salary, allowances and other terms of service of Information Commissioners, both at the Centre and the States.
By diminishing the status of the CIC, IC and State CIC from that of a Supreme Court judge would reduce their ability to issue directives to senior government functionaries.
The independent and autonomous powers of the CIC and the ICs have often enabled citizens to assert their right against governments reluctant to share information with them. This is now under threat from the Modi government.
The move would “kill the RTI Act” and is an “affront to federalism, good governance and ultimately, democracy”. It would also render freedom of speech meaningless. This will fundamentally weaken the institution of the information commissions as it will adversely impact the ability of commissioners to function in an independent manner.
The separation of powers is a concept, which underscores independence and is vital to democratic checks and balances. When power is centralised and the freedom of expression is threatened, democracy will be affected.
The Commission will lose its independence and will function like a Department of the Central Government.
The Modi Government has brought about the Bill in complete secrecy and there have been no public consultations on the Bill, which will impact the fundamental right to information of the citizens of the country.
Arguing for the Bill, the Modi government stated that the CIC and the ICs are statutory bodies, created by an Act of Parliament, and they cannot be equated with the CEC and the ECs, who are constitutional authorities.
However, this is not the strong reason for the changes because the Supreme Court has declared the right to information as a constitutional right of citizens.
The court has also supported the existing terms and conditions of appointment of the CIC and the ICs and wanted them to be specifically stipulated and advertised.
The Modi government’s decision to amend the RTI Act is seen an attempt to undermine the law and make the transparency panel a “toothless tiger”.