Finally, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government has succeeded in amending the Right to Information Act 2005 (RTI). On Thursday, the RTI (Amendment) Bill was passed in the upper house of the parliament, Rajya Sabha. Opposition parties like Biju Janata Dal (BJD) and Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS) supported the amendment. The bill was already cleared by the lower house of the parliament, Lok Sabha. Passage of RTI amendment bill was a serious blow to the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) led opposition which was of the hope that the RTI amendment bill and some half a dozen other bills cleared by Lok Sabha recently would be sent to a select committee for review.
The UPA expected this because NDA is short of a simple majority in the Rajya Sabha, however, the unexpected support of BJD and TRS jolted opposition’s hopes.
What is RTI amendment all about?
The amendment in the RTI Act 2005 is aimed at diluting the statutorily fixed tenure, rank or status and remuneration of Information Commissioners. When I say Information Commissioner, it includes those of Central and State Information Commissions. The RTI Act 2005 is applicable to all Central Government organizations and all the Indian states except Jammu and Kashmir (J-K), who has its own RTI law called the Jammu and Kashmir Right to Information Act 2009 (JK RTI Act 2009). At present, the Chief Information Commissioner and Information Commissioners of Central and State Information Commissions have a fixed term of five years or a maximum age limit of 65 years. The amendment proposes to change this fixed tenure by incorporating the term “as may be prescribed by the Central Government”. The amendment also proposes that the rank and salary of Information Commissioners would be decided by the Government.
Section 13 (2) of RTI Act 2005 reads: “Every Information Commissioner shall hold office for a term of five years from the date on which he enters upon his office or till he attains the age of sixty-five years, whichever is earlier and shall not be eligible for reappointment as such Information Commissioner.
Section 13 (5) a and b of RTI Act 2005 states that the salaries and allowances of the Central Chief Information Commissioner shall be the same as that of the Chief Election Commissioner of India. Similarly section 16 (5) a and b states that the State Chief Information Commissioner’s status and rank is equivalent to State Election Commissioner.
The government has removed these legal provisions through the recent amendment and now it is up to the government to decide the rank, status and tenure of Information Commissioners. Now, it can be assumed that in the future the rank, status and salaries of Information Commissioners can be lowered.
The amendments in the RTI Act 2005 have been done arbitrarily which is only disempowering both the Central and State Information Commissions and seizing their autonomous character. Information Commissions are the nerve centers of the RTI Act. When an information seeker is denied information by a Public Information Officer (PIO) or is provided incomplete information, he or she can file the first appeal before a senior officer of the same public authority, also called First Appellate Authority (FAA). When the information seeker is still not satisfied by the decision of the FAA, the appellant moves to State or Central Information Commission with the second appeal.
These commissions have the power to take action against the PIO if found guilty of withholding information willfully. The action includes penalty ranging between 250 to 25,000 rupees, which is to be deducted from the salary of the PIO. Due to the high stature of Information Commissions, the government officers were always fearful of these institutions; and by downgrading their status and stature, the government actually wants to make them a lame duck. Pertinently, it was only after the intervention of these commissions that a lot of information has come to the public domain and has exposed many scams in the past.
Though these amendments won’t apply to J-K RTI Act 2009, the Jammu Kashmir Right to Information Movement (RTIM), being a responsible RTI campaigner group, feels that the amendments go against the autonomous character of Central and State Information Commissions.
By giving power to the government to fix salaries and tenure of Central and State Information Commissioners, the government wants to make the RTI institution redundant and the irony is that all this has happened without any consultation with the stakeholders.
It is a matter of serious concern that the fresh amendments to RTI Act 2005 were introduced in parliament in complete secrecy, which violates the Pre-Legislative Consultation Policy of the Union Government that impresses upon making draft bills public in advance and consulting civil society groups on the draft legislation. Not even a single RTI activist was consulted by the government nor any meeting was held prior to the introduction of this bill in Lok Sabha. We hope that the J-K government will not take any similar step to amend the state law as a follow-up. There are many other issues for the J-K government to address, vis a vis J-K RTI Act 2009, especially to appoint the State Chief Information Commissioner and an Information Commission.
Raja Muzaffar Bhat is founder and chairman of J-K RTI Movement.
This opinion originally appeared in 29 July-4 August 2019 print issue of The Kashmir Walla.