RTI changes pushed through Rajya Sabha
The bill itself was passed by a “voice vote”. However, the government faced voting for the first time in its current tenure when the Opposition demanded that its motion to send the bill to a select committee for further scrutiny be put to vote.Updated: Jul 26, 2019 00:20 IST
The Narendra Modi government cleared a major legislative hurdle in the Rajya Sabha on Thursday when it managed to pass the contentious Right to Information (Amendment) Bill, 2019, in the Upper House despite having fewer numbers than the Opposition.
The bill itself was passed by a “voice vote”. However, the government faced voting for the first time in its current tenure when the Opposition demanded that its motion to send the bill to a select committee for further scrutiny be put to vote. The motion was defeated “117 versus 95, subject to correction”, deputy chairman Harivansh said.
The Congress bristled at the bill, which changes the tenure and salaries of key bureaucrats tasked with providing information, but the ruling National Democratic Alliance (NDA) sailed through by managing to enlist the support of a few neutral regional parties: the Biju Janata Dal (BJD), the YSR Congress Party (YSRCP), and the Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS).
The House saw brief adjournments on four occasions, as Congress, Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), Communist Party of India (CPI), Communist Party of India (Marxist), Trinamool Congress (TMC) and the Aam Aadmi Party members raised constant slogans in the well of House.
The bill changes the fixed five-year term of chief information commissioner and information commissioners provided for in the Right to Information Act, 2005, and states that states that the central government will notify the term of office of these officials.
The bill also states that the salaries, allowances and other terms of service of these officials will now be determined by the central government, as against the 2005 Act that says the salary of the chief information commissioner and information commissioners at the central level will be equivalent to that of the chief election commissioner and election commissioners; and the salary of the chief information commissioner and information commissioners at the state level equivalent to that of the election commissioners and the chief secretary to the state government.
The Opposition and several activists contend that these provisions weaken the RTI Act and bring the department firmly under the government’s control.
What helped the ruling side on Thursday was the fact that the full strength of the House was not present during voting over the select committee, and the vacancies of five members are yet to be filled. Though total strength of the NDA is 112 out of 240 members in the 245-member House, only 212 members were present at the time of voting.
By the time the voice vote was held, several Opposition parties, including the Congress, had walked out.
After the bill was passed, the government and the Opposition met in the chamber of Rajya Sabha chairman Venkaiah Naidu, an official said, requesting anonymity.
At the meeting, the government assured the Opposition that it would accommodate the latter’s concern about bills being passed with scrutiny by parliamentary committees. This brightens the prospect of some bills, including the bill to outlaw the triple talaq bill, being referred to a parliamentary panel.
During the debate, the Congress and several opposition parties said changing the fixed term of information commissioners amounted to weakening the landmark RTI Act.
On the changes in the five-year term of information officials, the Congress’s Abhishek Manu Singhvi said: “Now, although, you cannot reduce these terms during the term of a person, if you leave it to the whim and caprice of a government, which every two years changes the age, changes the terms of service, then you are keeping a Damocles’ sword hanging, as an instrument of power, as a tool of control, over an institution which was supposed to be independent.”
The changes “cuts at the very root of independence”, he said, adding, “in the United States, they made the term of the US Supreme Court judges for life.”
The Congress’s Jairam Ramesh questioned the timing of the changes, apart from the objectives. He alleged that the government was “weakening the RTI” because the government fears adverse information going out. He pointed out that an RTI query has revealed that former Reserve Bank of India governor Raghuram Rajan had submitted a list of loan defaulters to the government.
The Trinamool Congress’s Derek O’Brien said his party wanted the bill to be sent to a select committee only to help improve it with further scrutiny. Stating that the number of bills being passed without proper scrutiny had increased in the last five years, O’Brien said, “Sir, my limited point is, we respect the Lok Sabha election verdict; we respect the government; but, you must respect our role as an Opposition. We may be defeated but we will fight inch for inch.”
“Please rest assured that this legislation is without any motivation and in good faith. There are a number of other tribunals that have been harmonised over the last few months. The independence and autonomy of the information commissions will not be interfered with,” minister of state in the PMO Jitendra Singh said, adding that the bill was meant to streamline the administrative process.
One of the reasons offered by the government for bringing the bill was that the existing Act treated chief information commissioners on a par with chief election commissioners. However, the election commission was a constitutional body while the information commissions were only statutory bodies.
“Changing the tenure of information commissioners is not a simple procedural change. Fixity of tenure allows information of commissioners to act without fear and bureaucratic or government control. It is central to their autonomy,” said RTI activist Aruna Roy.