Amid much drama and a walkout by the Opposition, Rajya Sabha passed the RTI (Amendment) Bill, 2019, on Wednesday.
While the Opposition accused the government of diluting the RTI architecture, the government denied the charges and asserted that there will be no interference as far as the independence and autonomy of the Act is concerned.
Replying to the debate, Minister of State of Personnel, Public Grievances and Pensions Jitendra Singh said, “There will be no interference as far as the independence and autonomy of the (RTI) Act is concerned.” Seeking to allay concerns expressed by Opposition members, he said fixity of the tenure of Central Information Commissioners (CIC) and Information Commissioners at both Central and state levels will not be changed every two years or so.
“Even though the government will have the power to makes the rules, these are subject to the overriding authority of Parliament,” Singh said. “We should not have any concern that the authority framing rules would have unbridled powers not subjected to be checked by Parliament.”
Joining the debate, Congress’s Abhishek Singhvi said the changes being brought in are “pernicious”, as the government, through an executive order, can change the tenure of central and state CICs and Information Commissioners at its whim — like in every two years.
He said, “It (government) is getting a carte blanche from the legislature, that allows us to prescribe what we like, and when we like…. The age of demitting office…terms and conditions of service…salaries and allowances. Although you cannot reduce these terms during the term of a person, if you leave it to the whim and caprice of a government, which every two years changes the age, terms of service, then you are keeping a Damocles Sword hanging…over an institution which was supposed to be independent.”
Singhvi also said the government will “downgrade” the institution. “They are going to ultimately try and control it because we all know how they control. They want to make sure that the Commissioners are in their good books, so that the prescription of age and service is in their control,” he said.
His party colleague Jairam Ramesh alleged that the government brought in the changes because the “CIC had ordered disclosure of the Prime Minister’s educational qualification”, and various disclosures through RTI replies, such the actual number of bogus ration cards, had embarrassed the government. Among those, he said, was the disclosure on demonetisation, the revelation that former RBI Governor Raghuram Rajan had submitted a list of NPA defaulters to the government, and the fact that the CIC had directed PMO to reveal the quantum of black money brought back from abroad.
Trinamool Congress’s Derek O’Brien questioned the amendments and said they are against the nature of cooperative federalism. He also questioned the decision of not sending the Bill to the select committee. “This is not Ahmedabad Gymkhana but People’s House,” he said.
Minister Jitendra Singh said the amendments will only streamline the information commission and strengthen the provision. He said the Bill was brought with a clean intention and the government is trying to live up its motto of minimum government, maximum governance. “Please be rest assured that this legislation is being brought without any motivation and in good faith,” he said.