A Bill to give the Centre the power to set the salaries and service conditions of information commissioners was introduced by the government in Lok Sabha on Friday amid protests by Opposition parties.
Jitendra Singh, Minister of State in PMO, assured the House that the Right to Information (Amendment) Bill, 2019, was to correct certain anomalies in the RTI Act and not dilute the Act in any way.
“Probably, the then government of the day, in a hurry to pass the RTI Act, 2005, overlooked a lot of things. Like the Central Information Commissioner has been given the status of a Supreme Court judge but his judgments can be challenged in the high courts. How can that exist? Besides, the RTI Act did not give the government rule-making powers. We are merely correcting these through the amendment,” he said even as the Opposition protested. He said the amendment would strengthen the overall RTI structure and be an enabling legislation for administration purposes.
Congress leader Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury challenged the introduction of the Bill but was overruled. The government said the Speaker had the powers to allow introduction of the Bill.
AIMIM’s Asaduddin Owaisi called for division of votes for the introduction. As the division numbers have not yet been allotted to the members of the newly constituted House, the voting happened the old way —- through colour-coded paper ballot.
Home Minister Amit Shah and other Cabinet ministers like Nitin Gadkari and Prakash Javadekar were present. Senior SP leader Mulayam Singh Yadav was seen taking help from BJD’s B Mahtab to cast his vote. Mahtab asked the Speaker about the process to abstain. Finally, 224 members supported the introduction and nine opposed it. Almost the entire Opposition, including the Congress, TMC, DMK, walked out during the vote.
Opposing the introduction of the Bill, Chowdhury said it is a threat to independence of Central Information Commissioner (CIC). Congress’s Shashi Tharoor called it an “RTI elimination Bill”.
TMC’s Saugata Roy demanded that the Bill be sent to a Standing Committee. He pointed out that in the 15th Lok Sabha, 71 per cent Bills were referred to committees, but in the 16th Lok Sabha only 26 per cent Bills were referred to parliamentary panels. “In this Lok Sabha, not a single Bill has been referred,” he added.
According to the Bill, the term of offices, salaries and allowances and other terms and conditions shall be “as prescribed by the Central Government”.
In the present form, Section 13 (5) of the Right to Information Act provides that salaries, allowances and other terms and conditions of the service of the Chief Information Commissioner shall be the same as that of the Chief Election Commissioner while that of an Information Commissioner shall be same as that of an Election Commissioner.
The amendment states that the Chief Election Commissioner and Election Commissioners have salaries of a Supreme Court judge, which brings Chief Information Commissioner and Information Commissioners on a par with apex court judges. “The functions being carried out by the Election Commission of India and the Central and State Information Commissions are totally different. The Election Commission of India is a Constitutional body… On the other hand Central Information Commission and State Information Commission are statutory bodies established under the Right to Information Act, 2005,” it says.
The amendment had faced criticism from civil society members, activists and former Information Commissioners, who said the move would take away independence of the Commissions, the highest adjudicating bodies in the matter of the RTI Act.