The bill to amend the Right to Information (RTI) Act, 2005, that was to be introduced but was deferred in Rajya Sabha on Thursday, ostensibly pertains only to the status of information commissioners (ICs) at the Centre and in the states. “The salaries and allowances payable to and other terms and conditions of service of the chief information commissioner and the information commissioners shall be such as may be prescribed by the central government,” it proposes. It also states that the ICs “shall hold office for such terms as may be prescribed by the Central government, instead of five years”. The government has argued that the legislation intends to correct an anomaly in the original Act, which placed ICs on par with election commissioners. However, if the changes proposed in the bill are carried out, they will dilute the RTI Act considerably.
The Act allows an Indian citizen to seek “information from any authority in the country on the payment of Rs 10”. Its efficacy hinges on the independence of the commissioners who are the final appellate authority for those denied information. The Act, therefore, stipulates that these officials exercise their powers “without being subject to directions under any other authority”. Making them dependent on the government for their tenure, therefore, strikes at the core mandate of the Act. In drafting the new bill, the government also seems to have gone against the spirit of the deliberations in Parliament that led to the enactment of the RTI law. The Parliamentary Standing Committee, which analysed the original RTI Bill in 2004 before it became a law, had, for example, pointed out: “It should be ensured that the Commission and its functionaries perform their duties independently. For this reason, it is necessary to elevate their status to that of election commissioners.” In fact, the bill, in its original avatar, had a provision for deputy commissioners who would function as per the direction of the government but the Parliamentary Committee recommended the deletion of this clause because “it would curb the independence and autonomy of the commissioners”.
The fundamental objective of the RTI Act is to ensure transparency in the government’s functioning. This critical aspect of the government-citizen relationship has been under strain of late. Currently, there are four vacancies in the Central Information Commission, even though more than 23,000 appeals are pending before the agency. Andhra Pradesh does not have a single IC, the state information commission (SIC) of Maharashtra, which has a backlog of more than 40,000 appeals, has four vacancies, and there are six vacancies in the SIC in Karnataka which has more than 30,000 pending appeals. In the first week of July, the Supreme Court termed the shortfall in ICs as “very serious” and asked the Centre and the states to fill up the vacant positions. Unfortunately, instead of paying heed to the apex court’s directive, the government has come up with a bill which threatens to attenuate the RTI Act.