At least on three occasions the UPA (United Progressive Alliance) government, which takes credit for promulgating the Right To Information (RTI) act, had tried to amend it. A strong citizen protest ensured that these attempts were quietly shelved.
For past few months there are rumours that the present government plans to amend this citizen empowerment law. Many RTI applications were filed in the first week of May with DOPT (Department of Personnel & Training) to get details about the proposed amendments. A response received in June confirmed the plan and revealed that a proposal was already before the cabinet. It said, “The matter regarding amendment in the RTI Act, 2005 is under consideration and has not reached finality. As per section 8(1)( i) of the RTI Act, 2005, information requested by you cannot be supplied at this stage.” Most of us, RTI activists, were however confident that the government, as required by its pre-legislative consultation policy, would share the draft amendment bill for public discussion and feedback before presenting it to parliament.
However, the RTI amendment bill was listed in the schedule for the monsoon session last week. There was no information available about the proposed amendments. The government’s decision not to follow the public consultation process is unfortunate.
The amendment bill is now available to us and a close reading shows that the amendments are primarily for downgrading the position of Information Commissioners. At present, Central Information Commissioners (CICs) are at par with the Central Election Commissioners, and State Information Commissioners are at par with Chief Secretaries of States. The term of office for all is five years. The amendments give the central government complete power to decide the terms of office, salary and the tenure of the information commissioners. In the statement of objects and reasons, the explanation offered for the this exercise is that Central Election Commissioners are constitutional positions, whereas the Information Commissioners are a creation of a statute.
A constitutional position is one that finds mention in the constitution, whereas a statutory position is one that is created by a law. The legal position of both are the same. The argument given by the government to downgrade and arbitrarily decide the position, salaries and term for the Information Commissioners by amending the law seems facetious. This does not seem to be adequate cause for amending the law. There appears to be an agenda behind this and I will attempt to spell out the probable reasons and implications:
1. There are orders of the central information commission directing the government to disclose certain information, such as the degree of the Prime Minister, which it feels are impertinent. Perhaps the government wishes to put the commission in its place by assuming greater control over it.
2. Devaluing the commissioners will reduce their impact on senior public servants, where hierarchy is supreme. It would lead to some absurd situations and allow CIC orders to be ignored more than they are today. This would naturally reduce the efficacy of the commissions.
3. This may be a trial balloon to carry out further amendments to weaken the Act later.
4. Many regulatory bodies and tribunals have been created by statute. Some examples are the Green tribunal, the Minorities Commission, the Child Rights Commission, the Human Rights Commission, Lokayuktas , Niti Ayog, the different financial and sectoral regulators (telecom, insurance, electricity, pension etc). Perhaps the government is signaling to them that if they do not comply with its diktat, their positions too can be downgraded.
The government already controls these regulators with its control over the selection process. But they are still capable of acting independently sometimes, and this could be a signal to all of them. Whenever a Lokpal is chosen the message will be clear. Since it will be a statutory body, it must not annoy the government or it can be downgraded.
5. The downgrade could be just a bait to get the opposition disrupt the forthcoming session of parliament on the grounds that there was no consultative process; this would ensure that other pressing issues including financial frauds and bad loans are not discussed.
6. Another sinister plot may be to render the Central Commission dysfunctional. By the end of the year, there will only be three central commissioners left owing to retirements. The government is not appointing new commissioners, probably pending the amendment. Activists have gone to the court to seek direction to the government to appointment information commissioners. If the bill is placed in parliament and not passed -- which is quite likely -- the government may argue that it will appoint information commissioners only after the RTI act is amended.
It would be a real shame if things play out as I have envisaged. Having obtained one of the best transparency laws in the world, the government is now trying to emasculate citizen empowerment. Unfortunately for us, most people in power are ranged against RTI, precisely because it empowers ordinary persons. Citizens will have to show vigilance to ensure that RTI is not weakened. This is a test that we cannot fail if we want a better democracy and a better India.
(Mr Gandhi is a former Central Information Commissioner under the RTI Act)