Don’t Amend The RTI ActBloombergQuintOpinion
The government’s move to amend the Right to Information Act is very unfortunate and appears to be the result of wrong and faulty advice. This is a move which impacts the fundamental rights guaranteed in Article 19 (1)(a) of the Constitution. The citizen has a right to seek all the information which is held by her government subject only to ten categories of exempt information. These exemptions are the reasonable restrictions which are permitted by Article 19 (2) of the Constitution. If, however, the public authority refuses to give the information, the law provides for a final appeal before the Information Commission. The RTI Act provides that the conditions of service of Central Information Commissioners and State Chief Information Commissioners are equal to that of the Central Election Commissioners. The State Information Commissioners are equal to the Chief Secretaries of the States. This is to ensure respect for their decisions and authority. The amendments seek to change this and give the power to the government to fix their tenure, salaries and service conditions. It is obvious that the government wants to downgrade and control them.
Because of the non-transparent and opaque method of selecting all commissioners (including Human Rights, Women’s, Children, minorities....) many of them tend to follow the government's desires. Some information commissioners do show independence and give decisions which are not liked by those with power.
This move appears to be in order to downgrade them and make them caged parrots mimicking His Master’s Voice.
The autonomy and independence of the commissioners is vital for them to deliver transparency to citizens.
No proper reasons have been given. The ostensible reason given in the Statement of Objects and Reasons is that the Election Commission is a constitutional body while the Information Commission is a statutory body. Hence they cannot be equated! Constitutional positions are those which were envisaged and mentioned in the Constitution and statutory bodies are those which have been created by statute made by Parliament. The argument is facetious. NHRC, NGT and many such tribunals are not bodies envisaged in the Constitution but their heads are given the same status as the Central Election Commissioners.
The Union Minister of State for the Department of Personnel & Training has stated in Parliament: “The Central Information Commissioner and the Information Commissioners are equivalent to the Judges of the Supreme Court. However, if one intends to challenge their decision then one has to move the High Court. Does it happen anywhere in the world? The Congress Party enacted a very clumsy law and we are trying to modify it.” The RTI Act is one of the best in the world and has been successful in slowly empowering citizens and making the governments accountable to citizens.
As far as the issue of challenging the decisions of the Information Commissions is concerned, this is done under the Writ Jurisdiction of the courts.
The orders of the President, Prime Minister, governors, and Central Election Commissioners are also challenged in writ jurisdiction before the High Courts. So will it be argued that all these positions must be downgraded?
This move appears to be to gain control over the information commissions and make them beholden to the government. The government could decide on short tenures to ensure subservience to its desires. This would be a sure method to destroy the independence of the information commissions. A nation needs independent institutions to have better governance and democracy. The Prime Minister has promised to give India a better democracy and has also said the government will listen to citizens. We wish the government demonstrates this by withdrawing this move to amend the RTI Act. It would be a big sign if it committed that it will not amend this people’s Act but will bring in a transparent process for selecting information commissioners. If the government has some reasons which it has not disclosed it should disclose them and hold public consultations instead of rushing ahead with this amendment bill.
If the government does not display the wisdom to do this, citizens must come together to oppose this ill-advised move. Social media should be used to spread the word to oppose this move to constrict our fundamental right. Meetings and protests should be organised across the nation. We need to defend our fundamental right. The RTI Act was achieved after a long struggle and we cannot allow anyone to weaken it.
Shailesh Gandhi is a former Central Information Commissioner.
The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of BloombergQuint or its editorial team.
P.S. Editor’s note: The Amendment Bill was discussed in the Lok Sabha today. Do note the irony in this thread.