An Appeal to MPs: Don't Let NDA Deal a Death Blow to Right to Information

The amendment assumes that RTI is not a constitutional right.

The Right to Information (Amendment) Bill, 2019 will backstab the Central Information Commission (CIC) and deal a deathblow to the Right to Information (RTI).

It seriously undermines the autonomy of Information Commissions because it reduces the stature of Commissioners, which is currently equivalent to that of the Election Commissioner or a Supreme Court judge. Ever since it came into existence in 2005, the Information Commission has had enough authority to issue directions to anybody, including the cabinet secretary and principal secretary regarding the disclosure of information under the RTI Act.  

At present, the Information Commissioner has a fixed tenure of five years or until he or she attains 65 years, whichever is earlier. It is difficult to remove the Commissioner from office within this term. 

Also read: Amid Protests, RTI Amendment Bill Introduced in the Lok Sabha

If this Bill is passed, the guarantee for the Commissioner’s term and stature for five years will no longer remain. This means the legislative safeguard to the term of Commissioner is abolished and the government of the day will be empowered to prescribe any term, stature or salary.

The statements of objectives has clearly stated that the Central Information Commissioner is not equal to the Chief Election Commissioner and hence the need for an amendment to reduce his or her stature. It is not clear as to what kind of reduced “status” they are going to accord to the CIC and State Information Commissions. 

For one recruitment the government may prescribe a joint secretary status and a three-year term, and for another set of Commissioners, the government may give two or four years by frequently changing the rules. Or it may favour other methods of recruitment, with six-year terms and higher salaries.

Also read: RTI Activists Protest Attempts to Dilute Law, Criticise BJP For ‘Weakening’ Institutions

The legislature did not give this power to the executive in the 2005 RTI Act. So its exercise of this power is without any justification. It will seriously dent the present independence of the Commissioners and make them subordinate to government departments.

Already the governments are choosing retiring babus, who are very loyal to them as Information Commissioners, so that they do not act independently, as they are supposed to according to the RTI Act.  With this Bill, the persons selected as Information Commissioners with reduced stature, term and salary will be further submissive to chief ministers and prime ministers, thus depriving citizens of their right to information. This will kill the RTI entirely. 

The 2019 Bill is based on two wrongful propositions – that RTI is not a Constitutional right and secondly, that the previous government had erred in equating the Chief Information Commissioner with the Chief Election Commissioner. The Supreme Court has proclaimed the RTI as a constitutional right emanating from Article 19(1)(a) which guarantees freedom of speech and expression.

The Central Election Commission enforces the right to vote, which is part of expression right under Article 19(1)(a) and is further explained in Article 324. In a way, the Central Election Commission enforces only a small part of the right to expression, while the Central Information Commission is entrusted with the enforcement of the wider aspect of the expression.

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

Without receiving information, no citizen can express his views or criticise the wrong policies of the government. If RTI requests are answered according to law, it will directly impact governance, especially public delivery systems, and expose corruption widespread among lakhs of government offices spread all over the nation. This wrongful measure will make the Commissioners spineless and powerless when it comes to issuing any disclosure order. They will thus fail to implement the objectives of the RTI Act. 

The 2019 amendment thus adversely effects RTI and Article 19(1)(a) by undermining the independence of Information Commissions and facilitating the government of the day with huge power of meddling with the stature of Commissioners. 

Through this Bill, put before the MPs, the government is asking for more power to reduce the capacity of Information Commissioners. This amounts to the removal of Commissioners against the scheme and system that has been working nearly for one and half decades. If the MPs approve this Bill, Information Commissioners will become appendages of senior babus in state and Central governments. 

I appeal to both Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha MPs to oppose the amendment and see that it is rejected. The responsibility lies more on members of Rajya Sabha because they represent states, whose power to appoint independent Commissioners is being removed and given to the Centre instead. 

I request every member of Parliament to save the RTI and not allow the government to kill the Commissions and this valuable right.

M. Sridhar Acharyulu was Central Information Commissioner from November 22, 2013 to November 21, 2018. He is a professor of constitutional law at Bennett University now.