Rights

Amid Protests, RTI Amendment Bill Introduced in the Lok Sabha

RTI activists claim that not only has public consultation been bypassed before an important legislation, various norms have also been overlooked in the way it has been introduced.

New Delhi: The Centre on Friday introduced in the Lok Sabha the Right to Information (Amendment) Bill, 2019 that seeks to hand over the control over the salaries and tenures of information commissioners to the Union government. It also aims to remove the parity in their wages with election commissioners.

The move has drawn flak from RTI activists who claim that not only has public consultation been bypassed before an important legislation, various norms have also been overlooked in the way it has been introduced.

Minister says amendment would institutionalise, streamline RTI Act

During the introduction of the Bill, the minister of state in the Prime Minister’s Office, Jitendra Singh spoke about his government’s “commitment to transparency” and how it worked on the principle of minimum government and maximum governance. He insisted that the Bill would institutionalise, streamline and ensure the ease of delivery of the RTI Act.

As opposition members opposed the Bill, Singh also stated that the Centre has allowed the filing of RTI at any time of the day and has also allowed that the leader of the largest opposition party be allowed in the selection panel when there was no leader of opposition.

However, in the wake of several objections raised earlier by RTI activists, the opposition members continued their attack on the government.

Opposition terms it threat to independence of CIC

Leader of Congress in Lok Sabha, Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury termed the draft law a “threat to independence of Central Information Commissioner (CIC)”. Another Congress MP, Shashi Tharoor, charged that it was an “RTI elimination bill” as it sought to remove two of its vital powers.

Saugata Roy of Trinamool Congress demanded that the Bill be referred to a parliamentary standing committee. However, the idea was not acceptable to the government.

Also read: ‘RTI Amendment Bill Violates Constitution, Law Commission Recommendations’

AIMIM MP Asaduddin Owaisi sought a division on the introduction of the Bill, which he termed a “threat to the constitution and parliament”. However, the introduction sailed through with 224 members in support and nine against it.

Objective of Bill to remove parity in salaries of information and election commissioners

The statement of objects and reasons of the Bill states that Section 13 of the RTI Act, 2005 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.”

It “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.”

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.”

‘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.”

‘Centre’s control over salaries, tenure would weaken information commissions’

RTI activist Anjali Bhardwaj earlier cautioned that the status conferred on commissioners under the RTI Act was to empower them to carry out their functions autonomously and with “the Centre’s 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.”

Also, she said, if the salaries and tenures of ECs are determined by the government, it could impact their dealing of cases pertaining to the Centre.

Venkatesh Nayak of the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative said that due to widespread protests by citizenry, the opposition and the media, the NDA government did not introduce the Bill last year. However, “emboldened by the big majority” this time, it has returned to its “favourite past time – striving to curtail the efficacy of the RTI Act.” He said the text of the Bill is almost similar to that circulated in 2018.

The rationale for downgrading salaries of ICs challenged

The concerns, therefore, also remain the same. Nayak said: “The amendment proposals contradict the Central government’s 2017 action of upgrading and harmonising the salary packages of other Statutory Tribunals and Adjudicating Authorities established under various Central Laws.”

He pointed out that salaries of the chairpersons of 17 of these 19 tribunals were hiked to the same levels as that of the election commissioners (Rs 2,50,000), while the salaries of the members were upgraded to the levels of high court judges (Rs 2,25,000).

Nayak also said that while the chief election commissioner (CEC) and election commissioners (ECs) are entitled to draw the same level of salaries as judges of the Supreme Court, on the EC website their salary is still shown to be Rs 90,000 for each of them. “Either their salaries have not been upgraded or the information on their website has not been updated,” he said.

Also read: Proposed Changes to RTI Act Will Complicate Seeking Information from Government

Amendments violate law panel guidelines of harmonising salaries

Nayak said the proposed amendments also contradict the rationale behind the October 2017 recommendations of the Law Commission of India for harmonising the salaries and terms and conditions of service of other statutory tribunals established under various central laws. “So the spirit of the recommendations of LCI applies equally to the information commissions and there is no reason to treat them differently,” he said.

Nayak also pointed out that the proposed amendments may be in violation of the information commissioners’ right to be treated equally by the law as guaranteed under Article 14 of the constitution since they perform quasi-judicial functions much like the statutory tribunals and adjudicating authorities whose salaries were hiked in June 2017.

Proposed amendment disrupts federal structure by placing excessive powers with Centre

The RTI activist also cautioned that the proposed amendments seek to vest excessive powers of delegated legislation with the Central government. He said the salaries of information commissioners in the states are paid out of the consolidated fund of the concerned state over which the Central government has no control. So the RTI Amendment Bill is another example of seeking excessive delegation of powers by the Central government.

Finally, he said, the absence of consultation on the proposals prior to their finalisation is a violation of the 2014 Pre-Legislative Consultation Policy.

Another attempt to kill people’s ‘Right to know’?

RTI activist Commodore (Retd.) Lokesh Batra said the proposed amendments were just another attempt by the government to amend the RTI Act by taking away the autonomy of information commissions – “amounting to killing the citizens’ ‘Right to know’.”

Questioning the Centre’s seriousness in promoting transparency, he said, “since 2014, the Central government has not appointed any information commissioners in the central information commission, until directed by the courts.” This, he said, has resulted in the pendency of cases skyrocketing to nearly 32,000, thus frustrating the very purpose of the RTI Act, as receiving information in a time-bound manner is the essence of the law.

(With PTI inputs)