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Monday, Aug 19, 2019

RTI Amendment bill passed in Lok Sabha; Congress alleges it is ‘RTI elimination bill’

The Right to Information (Amendment) Bill, 2019, seeks to give the government powers to fix salaries, tenures and other terms and conditions of employment of information commissioners.

india Updated: Jul 22, 2019 23:36 IST
HT Correspondent
HT Correspondent
Hindustan Times, New Delhi
Lok Sabha on Monday passed the bill amending the Right To Information Act.
Lok Sabha on Monday passed the bill amending the Right To Information Act.(ANI Photo)
         

The Lok Sabha on Monday passed a bill to amend the Right to Information (RTI) Act to give the central government the power to set the salaries and service conditions for Chief Information Commissioners (CIC) and Information Commissioners (IC), even as opposition parties protested the changes and activists argued that the alterations would weaken India’s sunshine legislation.

The changes will apply to information commissioners at the Centre and also the states. The bill still has to be cleared by the Rajya Sabha before it becomes a law.

The current law, passed in 2005, says information commissioners will have a five-year tenure or serve until the age of 65; the new one says the Centre shall prescribe their term. The current law says the salaries for the CIC and information commissioners at the Centre will be the same as those of the Chief Election Commissioner and Election Commissioners, and that those of state CICs and Information Commissioners will be the same as Election Commissioners and state Chief Secretaries respectively; the new law says the salaries will be prescribed by the Centre.

While the Opposition says the changes will force CICs and ICs to become subservient to the Centre, the government contends the changes will streamline the functioning of the transparency panels. The government first sought to pass the law in 2018, but gave up in the face of opposition from other parties.

RTI activists, former CIC Wajahat Habibullah and former IC Sridhar Acharyulu, have also criticised the changes.

Beginning the discussion in the Lok Sabha, minister of state in the Prime Minister’s Office Jitendra Singh told the House that the legislation aims at institutionalisation, streamlining and ease of delivery of the RTI Act.

Terming it an enabling legislation for administration purposes, he said the move will strengthen the overall RTI structure.

That didn’t cut much ice with other political parties, with even the Biju Janata Dal (BJD) and the YSR Congress Party (YSRCP), which aren’t really considered opposition parties in Parliament, urging the government to withdraw the changes.

Leading the opposition charge, Congress leader Shashi Tharoor said the changes allow the government to hire and fire independent information commissioners.

“It is not RTI amendment bill but RTI elimination bill,” he added.

“Why is the bill being brought without any public consultation? Why is the government desperate to rush through the bill? Is it because the CIC delivered an order on Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s educational details?” he asked.

The BJD’s B Bhartruhari Mahtab alleged that the bill was an assault on federalism. “Why are we weakening the RTI architecture?” he asked.

Indeed, some analysts say that non-BJP state governments will protest the changes because they infringe on powers of the states.

Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) member Danish Ali alleged that the government is trying to dilute the law to block access to information.

All India Majlis-e-Ittehad-ul-Muslimeen (AIMIM) chief and Hyderabad MP Asaduddin Owaisi launched a scathing attack on the government, claiming that it is “afraid of the ₹10 request of a garib chowkidar” through which he can get information about its functioning. His reference was to the ₹10 an applicant has to pay to file an RTI request, and also a play on Prime Minister’s repeated reference to himself as a chowkidar (watchman) against corruption.

A Raja of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) said the proposed amendments will make the information commissioner a “house maid” of the government.

Raghurama Krishnam Raju of the YSRCP argued that the power of the legislature was being taken away by the executive. “Executive can’t do that,” he said, adding that a number of RTI activists have been killed and there was a need to ensure their protection.

In his reply, the minister rejected the opposition’s charge and maintained that the government was fully committed to transparency and autonomy of the institution.

“From the beginning of its first term in 2014, the Modi government has brought transparency in governance for greater public participation,” Singh said.

While 218 members voted in favour of the bill, 79 opposed it.

Subsequently, the Congress’s leader in the Lok Sabha, Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury, sought a clarification which was disallowed by the Speaker.

Unhappy with this, members of opposition parties staged a walkout. The bill was later passed by voice vote.

Social activist Aruna Roy, one of the prime movers behind the original law, told reporters in Jaipur that the changes are regressive and aimed at undermining the independence of information commissions.

“It is a matter of grave concern that the amendments were introduced in complete secrecy and in flagrant violation of the Centre’s pre-legislative consultation policy, which mandates public disclosure and consultation on draft legislations,” she said.

At an event in Delhi, Habibullah also disapproved of the move. “If the people who bring information to you are scared to tell the truth, how will the information reach you?” he asked.

Echoing Habibullah’s views, Acharyulu termed the move a “stab in the back” of the CIC and a “death blow” to the law. Ahead of the vote, he urged members of Parliament to reject the changes.

Known for his pro-transparency orders in several high-profile cases, Acharyulu said the changes “seriously undermine” the autonomy of information commissions.

Union information and broadcasting minister Prakash Javadekar said the government was “fully committed to transparency and accountability in the flow of information relating various government departments”. “There is a deliberate and mischievous attempt by a section to malign the government.

There is no merit in their criticism as the amendment to RTI Act in no way compromises the autonomy of Information Commission,” he said in a series of tweets on Monday evening.

A BJP spokesperson said the opposition to the amendments were by those who had “vested interest in using RTI as a tool of blackmail”. “Modi government has always stood for increasing the transparency, citizen participation and accountability, based on the dictum of minimum government maximum governance. Number of decisions taken in this direction bear testimony to this,” the spokesperson said.

First Published: Jul 22, 2019 22:35 IST

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