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Amidst a fair amount of opposition, the Right to Information (Amendment) Bill or the RTI Amendment Bill, 2019 was passed today in the Lok Sabha.
The RTI Amendment Bill seeks to bring in changes that purportedly impinge upon the independence of Information Commissioners of the Central and State Information Commissions.
Among the changes introduced by the 2019 Bill is an amendment to Section 13 of the RTI Act, which provides for the term of office of the Chief Information Commissioner and the Information Commissioners at the central level. The amended Section 13 now states that instead of a term of five years, the CIC and the ICs shall hold the post “for such term as may be prescribed by the Central Government”.
Also contemplated is the insertion of a provision stating that the salaries and allowances of the CIC and the ICs would be prescribed by the Centre. Sub-section (5) provides,
“The salaries and allowances payable to and other terms and conditions 5 of service of the Chief Information Commissioner and the Information Commissioners shall be such as may be prescribed by the Central Government.”
Similar changes with respect to the tenures and the salaries of the State Chief Information Commissioner and Information Commissioners at the state level are also contemplated through amendment of Section 16 of the RTI Act.
Members of Parliament today protested that the Bill was passed sans any consultation. Opposition MPs questioned the need for such an amendment.
The Statement of Objects and Reasons in the Bill does little to alleviate the fears of the opposition and RTI activists. It states,
“The functions being carried out by the Election Commission of India and the Central and State Information Commissions are totally different…Therefore, the mandate of Election Commission of India and Central and State Information Commissions are different. Hence, their status and service conditions need to be rationalised accordingly.
In view of the above, it is proposed to amend the Right to Information Act, 2005 so as to provide that the term of office of, and the salaries, allowances and other terms and conditions of service of, the Chief Information Commissioner and Information Commissioners and the State Chief Information Commissioner and the State Information Commissioners, shall be such as may be prescribed by the Central Government.”
RTI activist Anjali Bhardwaj believes that the amendment Bill will adversely affect the autonomy of the Information Commissioners. Speaking to Bar & Bench, she said,
“People use the RTI Act to question the highest offices and to expose big-ticket corruption. They can question the claims made by representatives in Parliament, and to question details found in election affidavits filed by legislators.
This is information that the government finds very inconvenient to give out, and in such cases, the matter often goes to the Central and State Commissions. Many times, the Commissions have taken a very strong stance in many politically sensitive cases. For example, the CIC declared that all political parties will come under the ambit of the RTI Act. More recently, the CIC ruled that the RBI should provide information on NPAs and defaulters.
What the government has realised is that there is no way for it to control the de-centralised way the law operates. By controlling the Commissions, they can control the flow of information. Commissioners will now be wary every time they pass an order to disclose information.”
Bhardwaj also pointed out the fact the Bill was introduced and passed without any consultation.
“The Bill was brought into Parliament in absolute secrecy. People got to know about it only when MPs got a copy of the Bill on the eve of its introduction. There has been no public consultation on the provisions. We had hoped that they would at least send it to a Standing Committee in the Lok Sabha, but unfortunately, that hasn’t happened.”
Given the implications of the Bill, we may well see a legal challenge in the courts. For now, it remains to be seen what comes of the Bill in the Rajya Sabha. RTI activists are pushing for it to be referred to a Select Committee once it reaches the Upper House.
Read the Bill: