RTI activists oppose the Amendment Bill; Demand Transparency

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Amidst the RTI Amendment Bill conundrum, activists question the very need for an amendment which has the potential to condemn the independent working of the Central Information Commission and State Commissions.

On July 2, 2018, Supreme Court issued a notice to the Centre and eight State Governments over a delay in appointment of top officials in Central Information Commission (CIC) and State Commissions that oversee requests filed under Right to Information (RTI) Act, even as an advertisement in this regard was issued back in 2016.

In a written reply to a question in Lok Sabha on July 18, Union Minister of State Personnel, Public Grievances and Pensions, Dr Jitendra Singh stated, “The Government is considering a proposal to amend the Right to Information Act, 2005, and the ‘The Right to Information (Amendment) Bill, 2018’ will be introduced in the Rajya Sabha” during the ongoing monsoon session of the Parliament. “Consultations with Department of Expenditure, Department of Legal Affairs and Legislative Department have been undertaken while preparing/formulating the RTI (Amendment) Bill, 2018,” told Dr Singh, who is also the MoS PMO.

The purpose of the proposed amendments “is to provide for an enabling provision under the RTI Act to frame rules regarding salaries, allowances and conditions of service for Chief Information Commissioners, Information Commissioners and State Information Commissioners” which currently does not exist. Bhupender Yadav, BJP Member of the Rajya Sabha, in a recent article in The Hindu, states that the Bill does not intend to make fundamental changes to the RTI. “Instead, it will make the RTI Act more transparent by way of providing express provision for salaries, allowances and other conditions of service of the CIC and ICs.”

However, Indian National Congress’ Ninong Ering, Lok Sabha MP from Arunachal East tells Delhi Post that the Act in its original form was aimed at transparency. “When the Act was introduced during our regime, it was with a good cause. Now with the dilution, we don’t know how it will pan out, especially in the North East.”

RTI Activist Anjali Bhardwaj questions the move and tells Delhi Post, “Instead of filling up vacancies that already exist and four more are due to happen, come December, including that of the Chief Information Commissioner, why is the Government keen to introduce an amendment?”

Bhardwaj, who has filed a PIL in the Supreme Court asking for the process of appointment to be made timely and transparent, further tells Delhi Post, “We have opposed the Bill because it seeks to destroy the autonomy of information commissions by letting the Central Government decide the tenure and salaries of not just the central commissioners but also of the state commissioners.”

Even as the #SaveRTIYatra (a travelling petition in Delhi to oppose RTI Amendments and demand operationalisation of anti-corruption laws) was being undertaken, on July 27, the Government issued yet another advertisement inviting applications to fill in the posts in CIC without a specific mention of the duration of tenure and stating that salaries will be specified at the time of appointment.

Activists say that even before the Bill could be tabled in the Parliament, the advertisement was issued “under the presumption” that the amendments will receive approval in the Parliament. Bhardwaj asserts, “If the present Act holds that five years, would be the tenure along with a salary equal to the Chief Election Commissioner’s, then why is the Central Government issuing such misleading advertisements?”

Although it is on the list of legislations that the Government seeks to introduce in the Rajya Sabha, latest reports indicate that its introduction has been deferred. Bhardwaj says that “nobody can say if the Government will table it in the Parliament. But as of now, the Bill getting deferred is a positive step”.

However, Venkatesh Nayak, Programme Coordinator, Access to Information with an international  NGO, Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI) opines, “It seems like the Government’s long-term strategy is  to keep the Bill alive or at least in the backburner until they have a majority in the Rajya Sabha to pass the bill.”

Many experts and activists have written eloquently about the “regressive nature” of the latest proposals to amend the RTI Act. Nayak points out that there are “problematic areas in the Bill”.

He mentions that it contradicts GOI’s 2017 Policy for other Statutory Tribunals and Law Commission’s views.

Nayak says, “It is in contradiction to the Central Government’s 2017 action of upgrading and harmonising the salary packages of other Statutory Tribunals and Adjudicating Authorities established under various Central laws and contradicts the rationale informing the October 2017 recommendations of the Law Commission of India for harmonising the salaries, terms and conditions of service of other Statutory Tribunals established under various Central laws.”

He also goes on to argue on how it may violate the Commissioner’s right to be treated equally under Article 14 of the Constitution, as it “vests excessive powers” with the Central Government and how there was no prior consultation with the CIC commissioners and citizenry before the proposal. He says, “It is a clear violation of the 2014 Pre-Legislative Consultation Policy which must precede all law-making exercises or amendments to existing laws.”

So, what happens next?

“What we want is that the Bill should be dropped and the independence of the CIC and state commissions should not be tampered with,” points out Bhardwaj. Augurs Nayak, “It is a conjecture that the Government is likely to keep the vacancies open. If the amendment goes through, it will send a very wrong signal that will be detrimental to the functioning of RTI.”