By P.K.Balachandran/Daily Express
An amendment to India’s Right to Information Act of 2005 passed last week by the Indian parliament, has considerably weakened the independence of Information Commissioners at the Central as well as the State (provincial) levels and has eroded the rights of the States by concentrating all powers at the Center.
The amendment, passed due to the brute majority enjoyed by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its allies, was vociferously opposed by the Congress, the Trinamool Congress, the Communists and the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK).
The amendment removes the set term of five years for Information Commissioners; removes the existing stipulations in regard to their salaries; and takes away the autonomy that the States enjoyed in the implementation of the RTI Act.
From now on everything will be decided by the government at the Center, further diluting the federal structure of the Indian constitution.
As per the original RTI Act of 2005, the Central Information Commissioner (CIC), the Information Commissioners (ICs) at the Center and the States were to hold office for a fixed term of five years.
The salaries of the CIC and ICs at the Central level would be equivalent to those of the Chief Election Commissioner and Election Commissioners. The salaries of Information Commissioners in the States would be equivalent to that of the State Chief Secretary of the State.
Now, through the RTI amendment bill 2019, the Modi government has done away with the fixed tenure of five years for the Chief Information Commissioner and Information Commissioners both at the Center and the States. All aspects will now be decided by the Central government. The States will have no say.
Opposing the amendment tooth and nail, opposition MPs said that the Central government can now force an Information Commissioner into submission by threatening to change his official term or salary or it could lure him with a hike in his emoluments or an extension of his tenure.
It is said that the Modi regime wanted the amendment because of some embarrassing queries using the RTI Act of 2005. In January 2017, acting on an RTI activist’s application, Information Commissioner Sridhar Acharyulu ordered Delhi University to allow inspection of records of students who had passed the BA course in 1978, the year in which Prime Minister Narendra Modi claimed to have a passed the said examination. This was when there were doubts as to whether Modi was a graduate of Delhi University as he claimed.
Within the next couple of days, Sridhar Acharyulu was stripped of the Human Resources Development (HRD) Ministry portfolio which he was handling as Information Commissioner.
In another incident, India’s Central Bank, the Reserve Bank of India (RBI), was directed, on an RTI application, to provide details of Non-Performing Assets (NPAs) in public sector banks including details of big time loan defaulters. The RBI had declined to reveal the information citing confidentiality.
The matter reached the Supreme Court, which, in 2015, directed the RBI to make the information available and reiterated the order in April 2019 an year after the RBI failed to comply with the earlier order.
Defending the amendment of 2019, Jitendra Singh, Minister in the Prime Minister’s office, told parliament that the amendments were necessitated by the discovery of some loopholes and gaps in the 2005 Act. For example, the Central Information Commissioner had been given the status of a Supreme Court judge, but his rulings could be challenged even in a High Courts! How could that be allowed, Singh asked?
But the opposition pointed out that that was not the issue. And it could not be an issue because even a Supreme Court judgment could be challenged and the decisions of the President and Prime Minister could be challenged in court. The issue is that the amendment paves the way for arbitrary intervention by the Central government which will enslave the Information Commissioners.
The opposition pointed out that the Modi government appears to be reluctant to fill four posts of Information Commissioners in the Central Information Commission. The CIC has only six Information Commissioners when the sanctioned strength is ten. The opposition charges that the vacancies are not filled only to weaken the CIC.
Interestingly, the original position and salaries of the CICs and ICs were fixed on the recommendation of a Parliamentary Committee which included then BJP MPs Ram Nath Kovind (the current Indian President), Ram Jethmalani (no longer with the BJP) and Balavant Apte. In, fact contrary to the Minister’s assertion, the 2005 bill was whetted by a parliamentary committee.
Congress MP Shashi Tharoor said the amendments are aimed at undermining the authority of the Central and State Information Commissioners and turn it into ‘toothless tigers’.
“The Amendment will arm the government with powers to hire and fire independent information commissioners. It is not an Amendment Bill but an elimination bill,” he said.added.
“The RTI Act was a monumental achievement for the country’s democracy as it challenged the vested interests of the government,” Tharoor said and asked why the Amendment Bill was brought without any public consultation.
Congress MP Abhishek Manu Singhvi said: “If you leave it to the whim of the government which changes terms of services then you are keeping a Damocles’ sword hanging as an instrument of power over an institution that is supposed to be independent—you are going to downgrade it and ultimately control it. You want to make sure commissioners are in your good books.”
Seven former Information Commissioners of the Central Information Commission (CIC) have condemned the move. Wajahat Habibullah, Deepak Sandhu (both former chief information commissioners), Shailesh Gandhi, Prof Sridhar Acharyulu, MM Ansari, Yashovardhan Azad and Annapurna Dixit (former information commissioners) addressed media amidst protests across the country against the amendments.
Despite the opposition, the Rajya Sabha (Upper House) passed the bill last Thursday, amid an opposition uproar and a Congress walkout. The opposition’s plea that the amendment be sent to a Select Committee was rejected. The bill now awaits assent by President Ram Nath Kovind.
Flaws To Be Addressed
However, it must be pointed out that the implementation of the Right to Information Act of 2005 has not been very efficient. A 2015 study found that poor record-keeping practices within the bureaucracy; lack of infrastructure and staff for running Information Commissions; and dilution of supplementary laws such as the one for whistleblower protection as reasons for this.
Madabhushi Sridhar, Information Commissioner at the Central Information Commission, said: “In my office, my secretary doubles up as the stenographer, registrar, deputy registrar and personal assistant who must also respond to letters my office receives. Compare this with the kind of staff support courts receive. With such poor staffing how can we be expected to discharge our responsibilities efficiently?”
He points to the problems posed by missing files in government offices. “The information sought by citizens can be provided only if the records are maintained properly. If the RTI has to succeed, then the Public Records Act must be implemented,” he says.
“In less than 3 per cent of cases, penalties were imposed on government departments denying information sought,” Amrita Johri of Satark Nagarik Sangathan says.