New Delhi: A year after it first issued a notice of intention to introduce “the Right to Information (Amendment) Bill 2018”, the Narendra Modi government has again resurrected the legislation. Last year, the government’s efforts were stalled in the wake of protests from civil society and opposition parties.
The Right to Information (Amendment) Bill, 2019 aims to get a hold over the salaries, allowance and terms and conditions of service of the chief and other information commissioners in both the Central and State Information Commissions.
It has been learnt that copies of the new Bill have been circulated to members of the Lok Sabha. The amendment Bill, dated July 15, 2019, has still not been introduced in the house.
No public consultation
Right to Information activists have once again protested the Centre’s circulating the Bill without any public consultation.
Anjali Bhardwaj of the National Campaign for Peoples Right to Information (NCPRI) said the move creates “grave concerns” about secrecy. “The government has brought about the Bill in complete secrecy and there have been no public consultations on the Bill, which will impact the fundamental right to information of the citizens of the country.”
She charged that the government was in flagrant violation of the Pre-Legislative Consultation Policy of 2014, which mandates public disclosure and consultation on draft legislations.
The concerns of civil society regarding this RTI amendment are many. They insist that the amendments would empower the Centre to make rules to decide the tenure, salary, allowances and other terms of service of information commissioners of the Central and also State Information Commissions.
“This will fundamentally weaken the institution of the information commissions as it will adversely impact the ability of commissioners to function in an independent manner,” said Bhardwaj.
What does the Bill state
The statement of objects and reasons of the Bill states that the RTI Act 2005 was “enacted to provide for setting out the practical regime of right to information for citizens to secure access to information under the control of public authorities.”
It goes on to add that “Section 13 of the Act provides for the term of office and conditions of service of the Chief Information Commissioner and Information Commissioners ….. . that the Chief Information Commissioner and every Information Commissioner shall hold office for a term of five years or till they attain the age of 65 years, whichever is earlier, and shall not be eligible for reappointment.”
The Bill states that Section 13 “further provides that the salaries and allowances and other terms and conditions of service of the Chief Information Commissioner and Information Commissions shall be the same as that of the Chief Election Commissioner and Election Commissioner, respectively.”
Similarly, it states that “Section 16 provides for the term of office and conditions of service of the State Chief Information Commissioner and State Information Commissioners …… It provides that the salaries and allowances and others terms and conditions of service of the State Chief Information Commissioner and State Information Commissioners shall be the same as that of the Election Commissioner and the Chief Secretary of the State Government respectively.”
On why the changes are proposed, the statement notes that “the salaries and allowances and other terms and conditions of service of the Chief Election Commissioner and Election Commissioner are equal to a Judge of the Supreme Court, therefore, the Chief Information Commissioner, Information Commissioners and the State Chief Information Commissioner becomes equivalent to a Judge of the Supreme Court in terms of their salaries and allowances and other terms and conditions of service.”
Bill says EC is constitutional body, ICs are statutory bodies
The statement adds that “the functions being carried out by the Election Commission of India and the Central and State Information Commissions are totally different.” Moreover, it points out that “The Election Commission is a constitutional body established by clause (1) of Article 324 of the Constitution …. On the other hand, the Central Information Commission and State Information Commissions are statutory bodies established under the provisions of RTI Act, 2005.”
Therefore, the Centre has reasoned that “the mandate of the Election Commission of India and the Central and State Information Commissions are different. Hence, their status and service conditions need to be rationalised accordingly.”
In light of this difference, the Centre has proposed to amend the RTI Act 2005 “so as to provide that the term of office of, and the salaries, allowances and other terms and conditions of service of, the Chief Information Commissioner and Information Commissioners and the State Chief Information Commissioner and the State Information Commissioners, shall be such as may be prescribed by the Central Government.”
‘Control of salaries, tenure is dangerous’
Bhardwaj said that the status conferred on commissioners under the RTI Act is to empower them to carry out their functions autonomously. It requires even the highest offices to comply with the provisions of the law. Thus, she insisted, “The Centre usurping for itself the power to decide even the tenure, salaries and allowances of information commissioners of the State Information Commissions raises key issues of federalism.”
She also held that the distinction made between the EC and the CIC as constitutional and statutory bodies respectively was “inherently flawed”. “The principle of according a high stature, and protecting the terms of service by equating it to functionaries of constitutional bodies, is routinely adopted for independent statutory oversight bodies, including the Central Vigilance Commission and the Lokpal,” she pointed out.
Standing Committee had discussed status of ICs
Bhardwaj said the Standing Committee of Parliament had discussed the status of information commissioners at length and noted that “… the Information Commission is an important creation under the Act which will execute the laudable scheme of the legislation …It should, therefore, be ensured that it functions with utmost independence and autonomy.”
It recommended that to achieve this objective, it would be desirable to confer on the central chief information commissioner and information commissioners, status of the chief election commissioner and election commissioners respectively. The recommendation was then accepted and passed by parliament. The Modi government wants to reverse this.
Rights activists worry that if the tenure and salaries of all information commissioners at both the Centre and in State Commissions were placed in the domain of the Centre, then it may greatly inhibit them from passing any orders against the Government of India.