With over six million information applications filed every year, the Right to Information (RTI) Act is one of the world’s most extensively used transparency legislations. By empowering millions of citizens across the country to question public authorities, the RTI Act has initiated the vital task of redistributing power in a democratic framework. People have been innovatively using the law to demand accountability from the government on a range of issues – from their ration and pensions to big ticket scams; from educational qualifications and assets of public servants to human rights violations. The legislation is being extensively used to seek answers from the high and mighty.
It is perhaps this paradigm shift in the locus of power through the use of the law that has resulted in consistent efforts by the powerful to denigrate it. The latest attack on the RTI Act is the proposal of the BJP government to amend the legislation.
According to media reports, in complete contravention of the pre-legislative consultation policy, the government has drafted a Bill to amend the RTI Act. The proposed amendments, which have not been made public, reportedly dilute the law by downgrading the status of information commissioners, the watchdogs of the transparency legislation.
Sections 13 and 15 of the RTI Act state that the salaries, allowances and other terms of service of the chief of the Central Information Commission shall be the same as that of the chief election commissioner. Those of the central information commissioners and state chief information commissioners will be on par with election commissioners. The chief and other election commissioners are paid a salary equal to the salary of a judge of the Supreme Court, which is decided by parliament.
As per the proposed amendments, salaries and allowances of information commissioners will no longer be equivalent to those of a Supreme Court judge. The amendments seek to empower the Central government and the state governments to decide salaries of information commissioners through rules. The rationale provided is that treating information commissioners on par with functionaries of the election commission is incorrect, as the latter is a constitutional body while information commissions are statutory bodies.
This contention is inherently flawed. The principle of according a high stature, and protecting the terms of service by equating it to functionaries of constitutional bodies, is routinely adopted for independent statutory oversight bodies, including the Central Vigilance Commission and the Lokpal. The status conferred on 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 law.
Empowering the Central and state governments to decide salaries of information commissioners is a clear attempt to undermine their independence – directions to disclose inconvenient information could invite adverse consequences by way of cuts in their salaries and allowances.
The government has claimed that these provisions in the RTI Act were drafted in a hurry and without much application of mind. Nothing could be further from the truth. Deliberations of the Parliamentary Standing Committee, which examined the RTI Bill, 2004 before it was passed, show that the committee gave due consideration to the matter.
The RTI Bill originally pegged the salaries and allowances of the central chief information commissioner at the level of a secretary to the government of India, and of the information commissioners at the level of a joint secretary or an additional secretary to the government of India.
The committee observed that:
“… Information Commission is an important creation under the Act which will execute the laudable scheme of the legislation …It should, therefore, be ensured that it functions with utmost independence and autonomy.”
It recommended that to achieve this objective, it would be desirable to confer on the central chief information commissioner and information commissioners, status of the chief election commissioner and election commissioners respectively. The committee’s recommendation to elevate the status of information commissioners was accepted and passed by parliament.
Another justification for the amendments is that ex-bureaucrats, who retired at the level of an additional secretary, suddenly get elevated to the level of a Supreme Court judge upon being appointed as information commissioners. This reasoning is untenable as there is nothing in the RTI Act mandating that officials of the rank of additional secretary be made commissioners.
In fact, the law is clear that commissioners should be persons of eminence in public life with wide knowledge and experience from diverse backgrounds – law, science and technology, social service, management, journalism, mass media, administration and governance.
Despite this, since the RTI law came into effect, an overwhelming majority of chief information commissioners (84%) and information commissioners (nearly 60%) have been appointed from among retired civil servants. If the government is anxious about the sudden elevation of additional secretaries, the way to address the concern is not to amend the law but to select eminent and experienced people from diverse backgrounds to be commissioners.
The proposed amendments come in the backdrop of the government’s adamant inaction on filling vacancies in the Central Information Commission. Out of a total sanctioned strength of 11 commissioners, there are currently four vacancies and four more are due to arise in 2018, including that of the chief.
The failure to make timely appointments is leading to huge backlogs of appeals and complaints resulting in inordinate delays in the Commission, which render the law meaningless for citizens. Instead of making appointments, the surreptitious move to subvert the law exposes the government’s intentions of diluting the transparency regime in India.
The four years of Modi sarkar have been characterised by weakening of autonomous oversight bodies – serious concerns have been expressed by sitting judges about the independence of the judiciary; four years after the law was passed, not a single Lokpal has been appointed; the functioning of the Election Commission has come under a cloud. The onslaught on information commissions is the latest in the long list of attacks by the current government on institutions of accountability.
Anjali Bhardwaj and Amrita Johri are RTI activists and are associated with the National Campaign for Peoples’ Right to Information and Satark Nagrik Sangathan.