The amendments to the RTI Act passed in the Lok Sabha on Monday have rightly drawn criticism from the Opposition and a large section of the civil society. The bill, which threatens to dilute the autonomy of the Information Commision at the Centre as well as states, should have been debated extensively in public forums before its passage through the Lok Sabha. The RTI Act was the outcome of grass roots advocacy and public mobilisation by civil society groups. The law has pushed the case for transparency in administration and been a precious tool for activists to force the bureaucracy to share information concerning public policy and delivery of services and goods in the public domain.
The proposed amendments concern Sections 13, 16 and 27 of the RTI Act. These relate to the rank, tenure, salary, terms of service of the information commissioners at the Centre and the states. So far, the appointment of information commissioners has been for a fixed term of five years or up to the age of 65. The amendment proposes that these appointments should be for “such term as may be prescribed by the Central Government”. The unamended Act prescribes salaries, allowances and other terms of service of the state chief information commissioner as “the same as that of an Election Commissioner”, and the salaries and other terms of service of the state information commissioners as “the same as that of the Chief Secretary to the State Government” — the amendment proposes that these “shall be such as may be prescribed by the Central Government”. Critics argue that these changes are a precursor to the government curtailing the autonomy of the Information Commission. Nearly 60 lakh applications are filed by citizens under the Act to source information. Not surprisingly, state institutions and ruling parties, particularly the BJP, have been hostile to this Act. The pushback has come in the form of exclusion of various offices from the ambit of the Act, deliberate slowing of the process, refusal to fill up vacancies and clear the backlog of RTI applications.
The government should send the bill to a parliamentary standing committee, as demanded by some Opposition MPs. It is unfortunate that changes are proposed to a law meant to make the system more transparent in a non-transparent manner.