[The RTI convention on October 14, which I attended, had speakers who hesitated to mention about the 2019 amendment to the Act, which I opposed as it violated the fundamental right of expression and the federal character of the constitution.]
Ideally, the 14th convention on the RTI, on October 12, where Central and state commissioners were present, should have resolved against the amendment which reduces their collective independence. However, I am surprised that even non-bureaucrat commissioners also did not raise their voice against it.
The least a convention of commissioners could have done was to ask for information on the status of commissioners themselves.
But do information commissioners have the right to information on the status of commissioners? It seems that the government has managed to escape the convention without informing them.
After 13 years of having been exercised successfully, the empowering Right to Information legislation has suffered a dent. A strong blow has been dealt to the institution of the Information Commission, which is a pivotal link between citizens seeking information, and the bureaucracy, which often refuses to share it.
Governments have shown their dislike towards the institution by posting the most hostile bureaucrats as commissioners, ostensibly to safeguard their embarrassing truths. However, the real damage has been inflicted by the re-elected National Democratic Alliance, which has reduced the status of the information commissioners.
An even more serious tragedy is that neither the parliament, nor the people know yet what the status of the commissioners will be reduced to. More than the damage, the most painful factor that became glaring at the 14th annual convention of the Central Information Commission was that even though information commissioners wanted to know about their positions, there was no resolution adopted to oppose the amendment.
Home minister’s silence
Union home minister Amit Shah and Minister of State of the Department of Personnel & Training, Jitendra Singh, thought it was neither relevant nor significant to even mention about the controversial amendment to the Right to Information Act, 2005, in their speeches. This deficiency was balanced (and participants felt relieved) when ambassador Pavan K. Varma strongly criticised this amendment and said Gandhi would have resorted to a Satyagraha in protest.
The chief guest, Shah, spoke for 25 minutes but chose to ignore the very amendment that was heavily debated outside the parliament.
Shah presented profound admiration for the transparency law and claimed that it had bridged the gap between the people and the government, and had addressed mistrust. The home minister explained in detail that the Modi government has taken various steps for ‘proactive disclosure on its own,’ which has, in turn, effectively reduced the need to file RTI applications.
He stated that the success of governance could be measured by a reduction in the number of RTI applications and not by its increase. He then proceeded to suddenly remove the apprehension that the need to remove applications could be read as a need to remove information commissions too, and declared that information commissions would remain.
The audience heaved a sigh of relief at this decidedly great assurance.
Another positive claim by the home minister was that the benefits of the RTI, especially for the poor, in the last 14 years have been greater than their apprehended misuse. He said that he personally checked the dashboards for various schemes to know whether full information was available and only thereafter was he venturing to make such a claim in the annual RTI meet. “The Modi government has created the necessary infrastructure by way of bringing a fully equipped building for the Central Information Commission, which had been languishing in rented building,” said the home minister.
All those who had been anxiously waiting to know the reason for reducing the status and stature of information commissioners were disappointed as the home minister finished the address without any comment on that.
Former and present commissioners from states were expecting the home minister to explain the need for such amendment. The most sought after topics in the lobby and dining halls of Vigyan Bhavan were, ‘What will be the rank of the commissioners, will it effect those who are already working, what will be the fate of newly appointed CICs with a condition that their service, status and salary would be prescribed by the Centre?’
The government appointed commissioners at the CIC before the 2019 amendment under a notification that their terms and conditions would be ‘as prescribed by Centre’ and not as per the RTI Act, 2005. Though three months have passed after the amendment was assented to by the president, no rules have been prescribed by the Centre. Frequently asked questions at the convention were: Why have they not been framed yet? Who will frame them? Do they come under the purview of the Ministry of Law? And so on.
Rumours were rife that the rules were almost ready and the status had also been decided. Media persons were also discussing the possibilities of the same and enquiring on it.
In the subsequent sessions, a suggestion came from the audience that status and scales of the wages of present commissioners be protected, their pension be rightly adjusted without detriment, and if a sitting commissioner applies for the post of the Chief Information Commissioner, his status (as it was before amendment) be protected.
Surprisingly, Union minister Jitendra Singh who is in charge of the nodal agency for implementation of the RTI was also conspicuously silent on this amendment. He did not utter even a single word on it.
If that amendment is essential and considered a great reform, then why would Singh and Shah not claim credit for it?
Through this well-thought-silence, the comment was loud and clear that the amendment was not worth a reference to!
If someone were to ask how the inaugural speeches were, one would have to say that ‘what was not spoken appeared to be more significant than what was spoken’.
Pavan Kumar Varma, the ambassador, while addressing the very next session on Gandhian thoughts and the RTI, emphatically stated that the amendment was retrograde and not welcome. It was as if he read the minds of the audience. His criticism of the amendment, to which he devoted a substantive part of his speech, went some way in balancing the ministers’ silence on the amendment.
“Fixity of tenure and salary is important for the institution of the information commission. They cannot be as per the wishes or whims of the rulers. Though I do not doubt the intentions of the government, I cannot agree with this amendment as its impact is going to be retrograde,” he added.
Varma, for one, did not hesitate to say that Gandhi, if alive, would have sat on a Satyagraha to protest this amendment. “It is a well established judicial principle that such an attempt to dilute the institution would weaken the power of the citizen who was secured by the right to information. These rights, especially the RTI, break the obesity of the government’s fiefdom. Anything that is perceived to be weakening the power of the citizen should be resisted. Gandhi would not have liked it,” he said.
Varma then went on to declare: “If we do not take the side of something we think is right, we will be considered as colluders.”
RTI lovers appreciated these comments with huge applause, yet the question remains, who will save the RTI?
M. Sridhar Acharyulu is former Central Information Commissioner and dean of the School of Law, Bennett University.