In a first, Parliament committee to examine functioning of RTI, information commissions
In a first, a Parliamentary standing committee will scrutinise the working of the transparency watchdogs, the Central Information Commission (CIC) and the state information commissions (SICs). The move has irked the right to information activists saying it “usurps” the powers of the state legislatives.
As the information commissions are statutory bodies, the CIC is required to submit annual reports to the Parliament and the SICs to state legislatives through its administrative wings, the Ministry of Personnel and Training in Centre and Services Department in the states. However, these annual reports are rarely discussed in Parliament or state legislatures even though members have raised questions over the efficacy of the information law through short duration discussion and zero hour, where a member can raise an issue approved by the Chair.
Rajya Sabha secretary general Utpal Kumar Singh has listed 12 issues for examination by the Parliamentary standing committee in the current financial year (2020-21), which includes a review of the working of the Central Information Commission and State Information Commissions. Others issued listed in agenda include reviews of working of virtual courts, Guardianship and Adoption laws and functioning of Alternate Dispute Resolution Mechanisms.
Committee chairperson and BJP leader Bhupendra Yadav was not available for comments. A Rajya Sabha official privy to the development said the committee decides on the agenda after taking inputs from all members, which include 10 MPs from Rajya Sabha and 20 from Lok Sabha.
“The committee has decided to review the information commission as there were lots of media reports about their functioning,” he said.
The committee has powers to summon any official and seek suggestions from the non-government organisations to review the performance of any organization including the information commissions,” officials said.
A report by Satark Nagarik Sangathan (SNS), released on eve of 15 years of RTI on October 9, 2020, said that around one-third of information commissions in India were headless, one-fourth of information commissioner posts were lying vacant and Jharkhand and Tripura information commissions were defunct.
The report said nine states, such as Uttar Pradesh, Telangana and Rajasthan, does not have a chief information commissioner, whose appointment under the RTI law is a statutory requirement. Since then, Rajasthan has appointed the chief information commissioner.
The Centre on November 10, 2020, filled the vacant post of chief information commissioner, since August 2020, with appointment of Yashwardhan Kumar Sinha.
Another report filed by Transparency International India on the same day said that around 33 million RTI applications were filed with various government departments across the country in the past 15 years, showing the widespread use of the watershed law that has empowered citizens to raise governance questions with public authorities. Only about 9 per cent of these RTI applications resulted in a second appeal, showing that over 90 per cent of the applicants were satisfied with the government response which, transparency law activists said, is the RTI’s biggest achievement.
“We have no problem with the review of the chief information commission by a Parliamentary Standing Committee as the legislature has powers to review,” said Anjali Bhardwaj of SNS. “We want the committee to give terms of reference of the review and the exercise should not be used to weaken the RTI Act. Earlier, the Central government had weakened the RTI law by bringing new service rules for information commissioners”.
In October 2019, the Centre had notified rules downgrading information commissioner post from equivalence to election commissioners to a secretary in the government. The new rule also reduced the term of an information commission from five to three years and gave powers to the Centre to remove them, which Bhardwaj said had undermined the spirit of the RTI Act in name of rationalisation.
Venkatesh Nayak of the National Campaign for People Right to Information (NCPRI) asked how could Parliament review the functioning of the state information commissions as they come under the purview of the state governments and state legislatures.
“This is another attempt to usurp the powers of the state legislature, to which state information commissions submit their annual reports,” Nayak said. Agreeing with him, Bhardwaj said the standing committee should take transparency and federalism into account while reviewing the functioning of the information commissions.
The importance of the RTI law for India could be gauged from Supreme Court 2019 judgment which said that the RTI has the potential to bring about good governance which is an integral part of a vibrant democracy. “Attaining good governance is also one of the visions of the Constitution. It also has a vital connection with the development,” the court said.
The RTI is a Central law, which was adopted completely by the states without any substantial change. However, through rules, the state governments have brought in certain changes for appointing information commissions and functioning of the state information commissions.