On July 19th this year, the government introduced in Lok Sabha the Right to Information (Amendment) Bill, 2019, which proposes to give the Centre the powers to set the salaries and service conditions of Information Commissioners at central as well as state levels. While this got passed by the Lok Sabha on 22nd July, 218 members were in favour of the RTI (Amendment) Bill, 79 voted against it.
What are the amendments?
The Bill amends Sections 13 and 16 of the Right to Information (RTI) Act, 2005. While the RTI Act, 2005, laid down a tenure of five years (or the age of 65, whichever is earlier) for the CIC (Chief Information Commissioner) and Information Commissioners,the RTI (Amendment) Bill states that the Centre will notify the tenure of all Information Commissioners (ICs) at the state and central level.
Under Section 13, the salaries, allowances and other terms of service of the Chief Information Commissioner shall be the same as that of the Chief Election Commissioner, and those of an Information Commissioner shall be the same as that of an Election Commissioner. The current amendment states that the salaries and allowances of these officers will be determined by the Central government.
With the RTI Amendment Bill, the BJP govt is seeking to control the terms & salaries of the Information Commissioners at the central & state levels. This will destroy the independence of these offices, making the RTI Act less & less effective. pic.twitter.com/h8Et5q60qc
— Congress (@INCIndia) July 22, 2019
As per the 2005 Act, if CICs and ICs (at central and state levels) are receiving a pension or other retirement benefits, their salaries will be reduced by an amount equal to the pension. In this case, previous government service includes service under the central government, state government, corporation established under a central or state law, and company-owned or controlled by the central or state government. The 2019 RTI (Amendment) Bill removes all these provisions.
If the tenure of the CIC, IC, SCIC, and SIC are to be fixed by the Centre, it may follow that their removal from office may also be dependent on the Centre — whereas in the original bill, the CIC and IC may be removed only by the President — and the state Governor in case of SCIC and SIC — after an inquiry by the Supreme Court finds reason for their dismissal from office.
They hide info on cronies the PM takes with him on his foreign trips (to get them contracts). They hide info on which PSUs have given backdoor mining contracts to which cronies. They hide info on the Rafale deal esp offset contracts to Adani. No wonder they seek to kill RTI https://t.co/3nRFC8uAqK
— Prashant Bhushan (@pbhushan1) July 22, 2019
The opposition has posed disagreement on the bill and is disappointed on the passing of the bill. The Hindu quoted Leader of the Congress in the House Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury said, “The amendments they (Centre) are trying to bring are dangerous. They are trying to attack our democratic right to information. This government wants to keep a tab on the Commission, and kill its freedom.”
By crippling independence of Information Commissions, Centre is finishing the Right to Information Act in India. Killing RTI is killing the law which made governed equal to those governing them, gave a commoner power to question the mighty! Will be most regressive step in years! https://t.co/C6qBQ0TmI1
— Swati Maliwal (@SwatiJaiHind) July 22, 2019
Congress MP Shashi Tharoor said. “This Bill is removing the two greatest armors of institutional independence and on top of that, by controlling the State Information Commissioners, by taking over the power to determine their salaries, the Central government is destroying it.”
The government, however, argued that there is no question of degrading the information commissioners and it was only trying to remove some anomalies in the Act. “We are not interfering and will not do anything to affect the autonomy of the institution,” said Jitendra Singh, Minister for Personnel Department.
Why are the amendments problematic?
The original Act had quantified the tenures and defined the salaries in terms of existing benchmarks. The amendments are being viewed as implying that, in effect, the terms of appointment, salaries, and tenures of the Chief Information Commissioners and Information Commissioners can be decided on a case-to-case basis by the government.
This might prove to be a backlash on the Government itself, in the sense that the authorities will have to be involved in deciding the salary and the appointments of the officials, certainly avoiding more important tasks. The government had tried to introduce the amendments last year too but had to withdraw the Bill because of protests from the Opposition.
This is not the Narendra Modi-led government’s first attempt to weaken the autonomy of the information commission officials. Now they’ve introduced the new amendment Bill in the Lok Sabha without having made the text available publicly and without any public consultation on the contents of the bill.
Ignoring protests by MPs in the Lok Sabha and their requests to refer it to a parliamentary standing committee, the Bill will come up soon before the Rajya Sabha. This weakens the ability of information commissioners to pass orders to disclose information that the central government may not wish to provide; and it also damages citizens’ access to vital public information, as well as the principles of open government.