New Delhi: Opposition leaders from prominent political parties on Monday, July 22, accused the Centre of introducing the Right to Information (Amendment) Bill, 2019, and passing it in the Lok Sabha without any public debate. The amendments, they cautioned, would not only undermine the independence of information commissions but also dilute India’s strongest and most widely used law for transparency.
Political leaders expressed their views at a people’s forum or “jan manch” led by National Campaign for People’s Right to Information, at Constitution Club here. Before the convention, a protest march was also taken out by RTI activists and ordinary citizens against the amendments which many have called “regressive.”
In a blunt attack on the Narendra Modi government, Communist Party of India general secretary D. Raja accused it of reducing the parliament to a rubber stamp. “There is no proper discussion on legislations. The BJP uses its brute majority to push through amendments, which undermine peoples’ rights,” he said.
The Left leader added that the BJP-led government was completely opposed to transparency and cited the introduction of electoral bonds, which allows anonymous donations to political parties, as a case in point.
Hope in parliamentary panel
Ghanshyam Tiwari of the Samajwadi Party accused the Centre of gradually dismantling all the laws which empower people to hold power to account. He said the government was keen on only centralising power and cited amendments being made to other human rights laws to buttress his argument.
Tiwari highlighted the fact that the government was essentially trying to amend an Act which sought to strengthen transparency.
Congress leader and MP Rajeev Gowda echoed him when he said the government was targeting laws which empowered people to ask questions. He said instead of strengthening accountability laws, the BJP government was trying to destroy them. He pointed out that the WhistleBlowers Protection Act, which was passed in 2014, has still not been implemented.
Gowda said his party would stand with the demand of the people and try to have the RTI (Amendment) Bill referred to a parliamentary committee so that it may be discussed properly and all stakeholders have a proper say.
BJP has numbers on its side
Rashtriya Janata Dal MP Manoj Jha said the protests taking place over the Bill across the country were a manifestation of people’s commitment to save the RTI law. He said, given the numbers in parliament, it may be difficult to prevent the BJP from amending the RTI Act but that his party would make all attempts to do so.
Senior advocate Prashant Bhushan explained that the Centre wanted to undermine the RTI Act as it feared it would expose its misdeeds. “Be it information on who all travelled with the prime minister on his foreign trips, the Rafale scam, the source of funding of the BJP or the award of contracts to corporates, the government has been hiding information on all contentious issues,” he added.
‘Flaws’ in the amendment
India’s first ever Chief Information Commissioner, Wajahat Habibullah, said that the fact that he and several other bureaucrats have written to the prime minister to not bring the amendments shows that they believe that the Act in its present form is empowering enough and should not be diluted.
“The RTI Act has empowered the people. The Chief Information Commissioner is the last court of appeal of safeguarding that law. But if the commissioners are afraid and uncertain about their tenure and salaries then how will the truth come out?” he asked.
Habibullah said that statutorily protected tenure and terms of service of information commissioners were crucial to allow them to work without fear.
In 2015, he added, Modi had declared that he wanted to run a corruption-free government. “Then where is the need for amending an Act which empowers people, instead they should empower the Act,” he said.
Anjali Bhardwaj of NCPRI said the proposed amendments were aimed at undermining the independence of information commissions.
“The Bill seeks to empower the Central government to make rules to decide the tenure, salary, allowances and other terms of service of information commissioners of the Central Information Commission and also of State Information Commissions. This will fundamentally weaken the institution of the information commissions,” she said.
Bhardwaj added that the move would adversely impact the ability of the information commissioners to function in an independent manner as “directions by commissioners to disclose information inconvenient for the central government could invite adverse consequences in terms of reduced tenure and/or cuts in their salaries and allowances.”
Co-convener of the NCPRI, Nikhil Dey, said protests across the country would go on at least till the Parliament was in session. He also urged all the political parties to demand that the RTI Amendment Bill be referred to a parliamentary committee so that all views are taken into account before any changes are made.