New Delhi: As the Centre today notified the rules for the amended Right to Information Act, 2005, curtailing the the tenure of information commissioners in both Central Information Commission and State Information Commissions to three years, a number of RTI activists slammed the move and said it would reduce the commissioners to “caged parrots”.
According to the gazette notification, “The Right to Information (Term of Office, Salaries, Allowances and Other Terms and Conditions of Service of Chief Information Commissioner, Information Commissioners in the Central Information Commission, State Chief Information Commissioner and State Information Commissioners in the State Information Commission) Rules, 2019 will be applicable on all new appointments.”
The RTI Act was amended by the Centre in July 2019 to alter the tenure and terms of service of the information commissioners as it intended to do away with the parity enjoyed by them with the Chief Election Commissioner and election commissioners as per the original Act.
Rules come three months after Act was amended
The notification has come nearly three months after the amendments were passed amid protests by rights activists. Due to the delay new appointments had stalled and pendency of cases in commissions that were short of hands rose sharply.
As per the new rules, the Centre would now have the discretion to decide the allowances or service conditions not specifically covered by the 2019 rules and its decision would be “binding”. The power to relax the norms would also rest with the government.
Tenure of Commissioners reduced to three years from five
While earlier, the commissioners had a term of five now or retired at the age of 65, whichever was earlier, now the term has been fixed at three years.
RTI activists had earlier argued that there was a need for a longer tenure that so that the information commissioners could function fearlessly.
CIC chief gets Rs 2.50 lakh in salary, all other commissioners Rs 2.25 lakh
The rules also stipulate fixing of the salary of Chief Information Commissioner at Rs 2.50 lakh and of Information Commissioners at Rs 2.25 lakh.
In a detailed analysis of the notification, Anjali Bhardwaj of Satark Nagrik Sangathan said these rules would make information commissions function like “caged parrots” since “they would now be wary of giving directions for disclosing information that the central government does not wish to provide”.
She said, “The rules made by the Central government confirm fears that the amendments were aimed at allowing the government to exert control over the information commissions.”
‘Government gets discretion to have different tenures for different commissioners’
On the reduction in tenure, she commented that while there is no change to the maximum age limit of 65 years and to the provisions regulating reappointment, as these provisions were not amended, Rule 22 states that the central government has the power to relax the provisions of any of the rules in respect of any class or category of persons.
“This raises serious concerns that the government could potentially invoke these powers to determine different tenures for different commissioners at the time of appointment,” she said.
‘Status of Information Commissioners reduced’
Bharadwaj charged that the protection of status of information commissioners has also been done away with. According to her, “prior to the amendments, the RTI Act conferred a high status on Commissioners to empower them to carry out their functions autonomously, without fear or favour, and direct even the highest offices to comply with the provisions of the law”.
“The law stated that the salaries and allowances payable to, and other terms and conditions of service of, the Chief and the Information Commissioners of the CIC shall be the same as that of the Chief Election Commissioner and Election Commissioners respectively,” she said.
‘Reduction in salaries does away with insulation from government control’
Further, she added, the salaries and allowances of “State Chief Information Commissioners and State Information Commissioners were the same as that of the Election Commissioner and the Chief Secretary to the state government, respectively. The Chief and other election commissioners are paid a salary equal to that of a judge of the Supreme Court, which is decided by parliament, thereby providing insulation from government control.”
But now, she lamented, “rules made by the Central Government have done away with the protection of stature of commissioners.” The rules prescribe a fixed quantum of salary for commissioners – Chief of CIC at Rs 2.50 lakh per month, Chief of SICs and information commissioners of CIC and SICs at Rs 2.25 lakh per month.
The rights activist said, “The removal of the provision guaranteeing equivalence to other posts (Chief Election Commissioner, Election Commissioners, Chief Secretaries) means that salaries of information commissioners will be revised only if the central government decides to revise the rules.”
Also, the rules do not indicate details of the post-retirement entitlements, including pensions, of commissioners, she added.
‘Government will wield influence through discretionary powers on post retirement benefits’
Bharadwaj said more discretion has been brought in through Rule 21 which states that conditions of service for which no express provision has been made in these rules shall be decided in each case by the Central Government. “This would potentially mean that the government will decide the post retirement entitlements, including pension, of each commissioner. It could use this power to vary the entitlements of different commissioners and use it as a means to exercise control and influence.”
Similarly, she said, Rule 22 allows the central government to relax the provisions of any of the rules in respect of any class or category of persons. “This raises the concern whether the government can invoke these powers to determine different salaries, allowances and terms of conditions for different commissioners.”
The rules, she said, also empower the Centre to relax provisions related to tenure, salaries and terms of service for different category of persons. “This destroys the insulation provided in the original RTI Act, which was crucial to enable information commissions to function in an independent manner. The autonomy of commissions is further eroded through rules by enabling the central government to decide certain entitlements for commissioners on a case by case basis,” she said.
Information Commissions, commissioners downgraded, reduced to ‘babus’
Another RTI activist, Venkatesh Nayak, told PTI that “as the parity between the Information Commissions and the Election Commission of India has been downgraded to babu-level (government officials)” and so now it was very unlikely that senior bureaucrats would be hauled up before the Information Commissions for not complying with the provisions of the RTI Act.
He said the trait of the bureaucracy to equate seniority, authority and power with pay grades “adversely affects the prestige and the ability of the Information Commissions to do their appointed job under the RTI Act.”
Another RTI activist, Commodore (Retd.) Lokesh Batra commented that the new rules give the government full control over the information commissions and puts a question mark on their autonomy.