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Rights

Activists Slam Bill That Gives Centre Control Over Salaries of Information Commissioners

The Modi government will introduce the RTI Amendment Bill, which also proposes bringing the tenure of commissioners under the Centre's control, in the monsoon session of the parliament. 

New Delhi: The Centre’s proposal to alter the “status and service conditions” of information commissioners in the Central Information Commission and the state information commissions by bringing their tenure and salaries under its own ambit through the Right to Information (Amendment) Bill 2018 has got rights activist up in arms over fears that it would undermine the authority of the commissions as well as the transparency movement.

The Bill has been listed for “introduction, consideration and passing” in the monsoon session of parliament due to begin on July 18.

As the details of the proposed move became known, Anjali Bhardwaj of the National Campaign for People’s Right to Information stated that the text of RTI Amendment Bill revealed that it “seeks to completely destroy the autonomy of information commissions by allowing the Central government to decide the tenure and salaries of central and state information commissioners, which are currently statutorily protected.”

A reading of the Bill revealed that the Centre wants to control both the duration of the tenure of the chief information commissioner and the information commissioners as well as their remuneration.

Salaries of CIC, ICs at par with CEC, ECs respectively

In the statement of objects and reasons, the Bill states that Section 13 of the Act provides that the salaries and allowance and other terms and conditions of service of the chief information commissioner and information commissioners shall be the same as that of the chief election commissioner and election commissioner respectively.

Similarly, it states that Section 16 of the Act provides that the salaries and allowance and other 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 to the state government respectively.

‘EC is constitutional body, ICs are statutory bodies’

It further said “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, and therefore the chief information commissioner, information commissioner and state chief information commissioner becomes equivalent to the judge of the Supreme Court in terms of their salaries and allowances and other terms and conditions of service.”

‘Mandate of EC and information panels different, so status and service conditions need to be rationalised accordingly’

The Centre argued that “since the functions being carried out by the Election Commission of India and the central and state information commissions are totally different” and since “the Election Commission is a constitutional body established by clause (1) of Article 324 of the constitution” whereas “the Central Information Commission and State Information Commissions are statutory bodies established under the provisions of the Right to Information Act 2015”, therefore their “mandate” is different and “hence their status and service conditions need to be rationalised accordingly”.

In Section 13 of the RTI Act 2015 which deals with the tenure and emoluments, the Bill seeks to substitute “for a term of five years from the date on which he enters upon his office” to “for such term as may be prescribed by the Central government”.

It further states that “the salaries and allowance payable to and other terms and conditions of service of the chief information commissioner and the information commissioners shall be such as may be prescribed by the Central government”.

Likewise, the RTI Amendment Bill 2018 seeks to make changes to Section 16 of the principal Act which deals with the tenure and remuneration of the state chief information commissioner and the state information commissioners by proposing a change to “such term” from “a term of five years” and by stating that “salaries and allowances payable” to them “shall be such as may be prescribed by the Central government”.

Activists oppose changes, insist status conferred to information panels empowers them

Incidentally, Bhardwaj had earlier opposed any such changes on the ground that “status conferred on information commissioners under the RTI Act is to empower them to carry out their functions autonomously and direct even the highest offices to comply with the provisions of the RTI Act. Undermining their status will fundamentally dilute the RTI Act.”

Prominent rights activist and former central information commissioner Shailesh Gandhi had also cautioned against any changes. He had tweeted against making any changes to the RTI Act saying it was one of the best.

‘Tenure card may be used to ease out information commissioners issuing bold orders’

Another RTI activist, Venkatesh Nayak of the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, said that the amendments will “deliver a body blow to the functional autonomy of the Information Commissions.”

Nayak said the amendments “seek to subject even the tenure of ICs to the control of the Central and state governments” and that this was “highly likely be used by governments to ease out information commissioners who will direct disclosure of information that the governments find inconvenient and seek to keep under wraps.”

He also noted that the proposed amendments can end up making the information commissions just another arm of the executive. This, he said, was not the original intention of parliament when it created a strong external appellate body like the information commission that would adjudicate disputes about people’s fundamental right to information about government’s functioning without fear or favour.

As for the impact of the proposals related to salary, he said by seeking to give governments the power to vary the salary and allowances to information commissioners at the time of every appointment, the Centre seems to want to repeat actions taken by the government of Nepal a few years ago, when it downgraded the salaries of the RTI commissioners even before the first batch could complete its term.

‘A body blow to cooperative federalism’

Nayak said, “the amendment proposals also seek to empower the Central government to vary the salaries of state information commissioners as well” and that “this should be treated as a body blow to the era of cooperative federalism whereby government of India would like to decide how much the state chief ICs and SICs should be paid for work.”

He also said that such amendment proposals defeat the very purpose of installing autonomous bodies that judge the correctness of governmental action in denying access to information. “The government of India is seeking to reverse its role as a high standard setter of strong RTI laws in the region. Instead it is seeking to toe the line of bad practices adopted elsewhere in South Asia,” he commented.