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Transparency and accountability are the two cornerstones of any democracy. With the intent to empower the general public and make our institutions more answerable to the people, the Right to Information Act was passed on 15th June, 2005. It enables an Indian citizen to file an RTI request with any public authority to seek information. The stipulated time period to answer an RTI appeal is 30 days. In case an RTI application is not replied to within the specified time, the applicant can file a first appeal with the concerned appellate authority. Furthermore, the act has provisions for an applicant to take up further inquiry if the response of the public authority is not satisfactory.
The significance of RTI has been harped upon multiple times by eminent theorists as well as political activists. For long, it has even been s seen as one of the most successful laws in India. However, no law is perfect, and there were already several loopholes in the law that were exploited by officials. Far from bringing these under scrutiny, the new amendment has further weakened it.
What has changed?
The government has introduced amendments giving itself powers to set salaries and service conditions for Information Commissioners, drawing stringent criticism from the Opposition. Let us look at what the amendment specifically changes within the act.
The bill amends Sections 13 and 16 of the Right to Information (RTI) Act, 2005. Section 13 of the original Act sets the term of the central Chief Information Commissioner and Information Commissioners at five years or until the age of 65, whichever is earlier. Section 13 states that salaries, allowances and other terms of service of “the Chief Information Commissioner shall be the same as that of the Chief Election Commissioner”, and those of an Information Commissioner “shall be the same as that of an Election Commissioner”.The amendment proposes that tenure, salaries, allowances and other terms of service of the Chief Information Commissioner and the Information Commissioners “shall be such as may be prescribed by the Central Government.”
While all this might seem like a mundane detail that the government is affecting changes to, it does have larger ramifications. How? Firstly, all of these changes effectively imply that the Centre alone will decide the aforementioned terms for State Information Commissioners, going against the federal structure of the Indian constitution. Furthermore, the centralisation of power may act as a deterrent for officials to remain objective while providing information that may invite the ire of the central government. Since RTI is exercised precisely to allow the citizens to exercise their full discretion in holding authorities accountable, any sort of compromise on objectivity would dilute the law itself. Lastly, the salaries of information commissioners in the states are paid out of the Consolidated Fund of the concerned state over which the Centre has no control. The RTI Amendment Bill thus can be viewed as an attempt to gain control over a state’s financial and executive powers by the Centre.
Demand for scrutiny
Opposition parties demanded that the RTI Amendment Bill should be referred to a committee of the house for detailed scrutiny before being passed. Alternatively, the treasury benches and a few other parties were of the opinion that the Bill should be passed after debating it on the floor of the House. Ultimately, the house passed the RTI Amendment after voting down the demand for sending it to a committee. Interestingly, this is not the only bill that was asked to be sent for further scrutiny by the Opposition. However, none of the bills passed by Parliament in this session have been referred to a parliamentary committee.
There were also some procedural grounds of contention. There are two ways to conduct a debate a bill: on the floor of the house or in a Parliamentary Committee. Debating within the parliament involves MPs of both sides who present their stance in line with their respective political party’s views. Such a discussion can usually be wrapped up within a few hours. On the other hand, debates in committees are more technical and the deliberations require time, sometimes stretching over a few months. In this case, the government was accused of trying to hurry up the process in order to avoid any formal review of the changes they sought.
RTI activists and the former Chief Information Commissioner have come openly called the amendment regressive in nature. In fact, several of the government’s arguments were debunked right after the bill was passed. The representatives of the ruling party said that RTI is not a constitutional right. However, there are several judgments of the Supreme Court that accord the status of a fundamental/constitutional right to Right to Information. The Centre also stated that the Central Information Commission is not a constitutional institution like the Election Commission. But it’s common knowledge that an institution need not be mentioned or be in existence at the time of the commencement of the Constitution to be regarded as one. Every institution that enforces the constitutional right is inherently a constitutional institution.
Furthermore, in order to degrade Congress, the representatives of the ruling party implied that the RTI Act was passed in a hurry in 2005. They even went on to say that the then government hastily equated the Central Information Commission with the Election Commission. But in reality a parliamentary standing committee that was set up back then, had considered each provision elaborately, discussed it with governmental and non-governmental personalities and consulted the people and other stakeholders; something that the current government has not done.
Ultimately, it can not be denied that none of the stakeholders or central/ state information commissions were consulted before passing such legislation and neither were any justifications provided for not doing the same. The Opposition was not even given sufficient time to prepare any counter arguments as the bill was kept a secret until the agenda for the next day was announced. Therefore, a law meant to ensure transparency has now itself become clouded. One can only hope that the law will not be allowed to be diluted further as the true test of any democracy lies in how informed its citizens are.