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Thursday, Nov 14, 2019

RTI 2.0: Eroding a valued right | Analysis

The new rules curtail the autonomy and authority of information commissions. Citizens will suffer

analysis Updated: Oct 30, 2019 19:34 IST
Yashovardhan Azad and M Sridhar Acharyulu
Yashovardhan Azad and M Sridhar Acharyulu
The RTI regime is at a crossroads today. There have been vigorous protests, and civil society may move court
The RTI regime is at a crossroads today. There have been vigorous protests, and civil society may move court (Biplov Bhuyan/HT PHOTO)
         

Fifteen years after the enactment of the Right to Information (RTI) Act, the RTI regime is set to play a fresh innings in the future. On October 25, the Union government notified new rules for fixing tenure, salaries, and service conditions of information commissioners in the central information commission and the state information commissions. In July, the Centre had passed a bill to give itself full authority for deciding tenure and salaries of information commissioners, at the Centre as well as in the states.

There is a strange anomaly in the change in the salary structure for the central and state information commissioners. Earlier, all central information commissioners were paid the same salary, which was equivalent to that of central election commissioners (CEC), and Supreme Court judges. Under the new rule, however, only the chief information commissioner will be entitled to the earlier salary, while the salaries of other information commissioners will be equated with that of secretaries in the Government of India (GoI). This means that the salary of central information commissioners will be reduced from ~2.50 lakh to ~2.25 lakh. All rules governing the GOI secretaries, pertaining to their leave and leave travel allowance, will now be applicable to the information commissioners.

But here is the strange part. While deciding to give more to the central information commissioner than other information commissioners, the new rules have removed this salary disparity in the states, hitherto existing between the state chief information commissioner and other information commissioners. Now salaries of all state information commissioners, including the state chief information commissioner, will be equated with the salary of a secretary in the GoI. Earlier, the state chief information commissioner’s salary was equated with that of the CEC.

The above steps violate the parliamentary standing committee deliberations during the formulation of the RTI Act. The committee, which comprised members of Parliament from various political parties, ruled that the salary and perks of central information commissioners should match that of CECs and SC judges to bestow upon the information commissioners status and autonomy, befitting their post.

The second indication of the erosion of status and autonomy of information commissioners is evident from the reduction of their tenure from five years to three. Since the power of revision of rules is with the Centre, extensions can be given at the government’s discretion to “acceptable commissioners”. This is a huge blow to the autonomy of the commission.

The Centre has severely curtailed the independence and autonomy of individual information commissioners within the commission by making them subordinate to the chief information commissioner, which was not envisaged in the original RTI Act of 2005. The chief was first among equals, but now, he will act like a head of a department. This will weaken not just the commission, but also individual information commissioners.

With the promulgation of the new rules and the Centre arrogating to itself the power to change them, the federal scheme of distribution of powers as per the original RTI Act has been weakened. The states, after all, had the powers to decide the salary, perks and tenure of their commissioners. The amended rules dilute the spirit of the original Act.

The RTI regime is at a crossroads today. The rules will diminish the importance of the commissions and the commissioners. They will dilute their authority to question senior bureaucrats for delay or obstruction in furnishing information by various departments. Information officers will also not take the orders of the commission seriously.

By making the central information commissioners senior to information commissioners, every successive government would like to appoint a central information commissioner of its own, from outside. This will lead to an unhealthy practice since, in a quasi-judicial set-up, the chief should be chosen on the basis of seniority.

There was a furore when a retired chief justice was appointed as governor. The trend now continues, with a former central information commissioner being appointed administrator of the newly-formed Union Territory of Ladakh within a year of his retirement. It may be pointed out that he is a lateral entrant, superseding very competent information commissioners in the commission.

A persistent complaint from civil society and other stakeholders has been the crowding of the commissions with bureaucrats. Rarely are non-officials inducted, especially at the Centre. With the change in rules, the government will feel even more comfortable having bureaucrats as information commissioners. In the states, retired senior-most bureaucrats would be best placed to join as the state chief information commissioner, in similar rank and pay. There have been vigorous protests against this trend by the civil society members, and they have threatened to move court as a last resort.

Yashovardhan Azad and M Sridhar Acharyulu are former Central Information Commissioners (2013-2018)
The views expressed are personal