RTI Activists Protest Attempts to Dilute Law, Criticise BJP For 'Weakening' Institutions

Rope in major opposition parties to stall any attempts by the Narendra Modi government to tinker with the law and control the salary and tenure of information commissioners.

New Delhi: On the first day of business in parliament, Right to Information (RTI) activists again hit the streets of New Delhi on Wednesday to protest against the proposed amendments to the RTI Act. They also demanded immediate operationalisation of anti-corruption laws like the Lokpal Act, the Whistle Blowers Protection Act and reintroduction of the Grievance Redressal Bill.

Since a case has been filed in the Supreme Court regarding the government delaying the appointment of information commissioners to the central and state commissions, and the matter is due to come up for hearing on December 13, the activists were apprehensive that the Centre could push in the amendment to the RTI Act before it. Talking to The Wire, some of them said though the matter was not listed, it remained a distinct possibility.

Also Read: The Government Is SLAPPing Down and Intimidating Central Information Commissioners

As part of the protest action, a protest march was taken out from Patel Chowk to V.P. House near the parliament. It featured a “Ghotala Rath” (corruption chariot) to expose the government’s double speak on issues of corruption.

Modi government weakened anti-corruption laws, institutions

Addressing the protesters, Nikhil Dey of National Campaign for Peoples’ Right to Information (NCPRI) said while the BJP government came to power on the plank of fighting corruption, it has only systematically weakened and undermined all major laws and institutions of transparency and accountability. RTI activists from 12 states participated in the march.

NCPRI co-founder Anjali Bharadwaj claimed that the amendment to the RTI Act would dilute it and undermine the independence of information commissions. “Under the RTI law, information commissions are supposed to ensure that people get their fundamental right to information. They also have powers to direct the government to give information, even if it is inconvenient information,” she said.

Noting that nearly six million RTI applications are filed across the country each year, she said most of the appellants are ordinary citizens asking the government about their rights and entitlements. “This is helping them hold the government to account.”

RTI activists taking out the “Ghotala Rath yatra” as part of the campaign to oppose Centre’s attempts to dilute the Act by bringing in amendments. Credit: Gaurav Vivek Bhatnagar

She said in the recent past, people have also used RTI to ask the highest offices, like the Prime Minister’s Office, about issues like PM’s foreign travels, who travelled with him when he went abroad to sign various defence deals and his educational qualification.

With the commission directing that all such information be released, Bhardwaj said, “There has been a huge backlash and the government is trying to dilute the law.”

Bhardwaj said out of 11 posts in the CIC, eight are now vacant, including that of the chief information commissioner. “There is a pendency of more than 26,000 cases and the government is refusing to make any appointments to the CIC. Instead they are trying to dilute the law.”

The protest also demanded that the WBP Act and the Lokpal Act, which were passed in 2014, be implemented immediately. It was pointed out that 78 people have been killed for seeking information and exposing corruption.

Will not allow dilution of RTI Act: opposition leaders

Later at Jan Manch, leaders of various political parties pledged that they would oppose any move by the Narendra Modi government to dilute the RTI Act.

Rajeev Gowda of the Congress said his party would oppose any amendments to the Act. “It is crucial to empower people to seek information about decisions of the government,” he said.

Gowda also noted that the Centre was undermining accountability by not disclosing the price of the Rafale aircraft in Parliament. He said secrecy in party funding through electoral bonds should also be opposed.

Also Read: ‘Save RTI, Save Democracy’: Hundreds Protest Attempts to Dilute the Law

Manoj Jha of the Rashtriya Janata Dal said his party would not hesitate from entering the well of the house to oppose any dilution of the Act. “We will oppose it sansad se sadak tak (from the parliament to the streets),” he quipped.

Communist Party of India leader D. Raja recalled how his party supported the passage of the RTI Act in 2005 and then opposed every government attempt to weaken the law. He said even this time, it would oppose the proposed amendments.

Rashtriya Janata Dal MP Manoj Jha speaking at a peoples’ conclave organised by National Campaign for Peoples’ Right to Information to oppose attempts to dilute the RTI Act. Credit: Gaurav Vivek Bhatnagar

Bhushan accuses Modi regime of trying to destroy institutions

Senior advocate Prashant Bhushan, who is fighting the CIC vacancies case on behalf of the activists in Supreme Court, charged that the Modi government was attacking the independence of all major institutions by either changing the law or putting its own hand-picked people in them.

He said instead of filling up the vacancies in the commission, the government is bringing in an amendment that would influence the functioning of the commissioners by placing their salaries and tenure in the hands of the Centre.

Bhushan said many laws to fight corruption have also been diluted. “The Prevention of Corruption Act is there, but the government brought in amendments to reduce its impact. The amendments now provide that no enquiry of corruption can be ordered till approval of the government is taken. But if the charge of corruption is against the government, then this is like seeking permission from a thief for proceeding against him,” he quipped.

He said criminal misconduct, which included providing extra benefit to someone, was also removed from the provision of PCA.

The leading lawyer said the Centre has also not notified the WBP Act to encourage officials to report corruption to the Central Vigilance Commission. Similarly, he said, the Lokpal Act was also passed, but no appointments have been made under it.

‘CVC used to destroy CBI’

Bhushan also charged that the government has been appointing corrupt officers in high positions to undermine the institutions. “The Central Vigilance Commission has now gone on to destroy the CBI. A raid was conducted on the CBI director as he declared his independence and was about to order a probe into the Rafale deal,” he said.

He said Reserve Bank of India governor Urjit Patel had resigned because he was asked to go slow on the recovery of money from various companies close to the government. The government wanted the central bank to release Rs 3 lakh crores which were meant for other purposes, he said.

In the Election Commission too, he said a commissioner was appointed whose name had figured in the Radia tapes. Moreover, pliable bureaucrats have been appointed by the government in top positions in the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) and now the RBI. Top posts in universities are also being compromised, he added.

Also Read: Modi Government Blocking Information on Proposed Amendments to RTI Act

“Only those who swear allegiance to RSS, Modi or Amit Shah are given key posts,” Bhushan said, adding, “Not only democracy, civilisation is under threat.”

Former Central Information Commissioner M. Sridhar Acharyulu, who delivered landmark orders seeking the Delhi University release information about Modi’s educational qualification and from the RBI about the big loan defaulters, also spoke. He said the issue was not of an individual, but people’s right to know a public servant’s educational qualification. Likewise, he said, the RBI was duty bound to reveal information to the general public.

A professor in law, Acharyulu also questioned the latest trend of former or serving information commissioners being made respondent number one in cases being filed in courts. He also questioned why the governments were taking on the information commissions in this way. “People will not get information or development if government departments will fight each other in this fashion,” he cautioned.