Right to Information (RTI) activists have expressed apprehensions about the Right to Information (Amendment) Bill, 2018, and cautioned that the amendment could dilute or weaken the Act. The Bill, which the government intends to introduce in Parliament’s Monsoon Session, which started on Wednesday, is aimed at giving the Centre the power to fix the tenures and salaries of state and central information commissioners.
Currently, the salaries and tenures of central and state information commissioners are statutorily protected as they are provided in the RTI Act. Former Central Information Commissioner (CIC) Shailesh Gandhi said the move seemed to be a fall-out of the Central Information Commission’s orders to respond to RTIs about the educational qualification of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
“What does this mean ? The central government wants complete control of the system. It is a move aimed at completely wrecking the autonomy and independence of the RTI Act. When the Act itself provides for the salaries and tenures of the information commission, why is there a need for the government to meddle with it,” asked RTI activist Vijay Kumbhar.
Kumbhar said when the Act was introduced in 2005, Parliament had discussed the issue threadbare. “The emphasis of Parliament was on giving autonomy and independence to information commissions, both at the Centre and the state. Now this government seems to be bent on doing away with the autonomy and independence of the commission,” he said. Kumbhar warned that the amendment Bill could not only dilute the Act, it could also spell its doom.
He pointed out that the RTI Act already has a provision for the removal of information commissioners. “If a complaint is made to the President, he refers it to the Supreme Court, which probes the complaint and makes recommendations to the President. The Central Chief Information Commissioner or any Information Commissioner can be removed from office only by the order of the President, on the ground of proved misbehaviour or incapacity. This happens only after the Supreme Court probes the complaint on a reference made to it by the President,” he said.
Similarly, at the state level, the governor has the power to take a decision about the removal of state chief information commissioners and information commissioners. Former CIC Shailesh Gandhi said by bringing in the amendment, the government was “violating the pre-legislative consultative policy”. “There is no valid reason for the government to amend the Act. The only possibility is that the central government seems to be annoyed about the CIC’s orders to disclose the educational qualification of the Prime Minister… it could be an act of vengeance or arrogance,” he said.
Gandhi said this could be a “trial balloon” by the government, aimed towards an effort to lay the ground for a much bigger amendment. “My worry is that the government will bring in a major amendment after this test balloon…,” he said. He, however, disagreed with the contention that the move could “spell doom” for the RTI Act. “It will weaken the Act for sure, but will not take away the powers of the information commissioners,” he said.
Gandhi said the UPA government had thrice tried to bring in amendments to the RTI Act, but could not do so due to protests. Another RTI activist, Maruti Bhapkar, said the statements and objects of the Bill stated that the RTI Act was enacted to promote transparency and accountability of every public authority towards citizens. “But by amending the Act, the government is seeking to make the commissions accountable to it and seeking to destroy its transparent functioning,” he said. Bhapkar said if the central government had the power to decide the tenures and salaries of information commissioners, the commissioners would be “under pressure not to annoy the government, which means they would be biased on delivering justice”. “The existence of such a justice delivery system is against the spirit of the Constitution,” he said.