Dr M Sridhar Acharyulu, former Central information commissioner (CIC) has appealed to all members of Parliament (MPs) to defeat the amendments being made to the Right to Information (RTI) Act by the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government.
Moneylife is in possession of a copy of the appeal made by Dr Acharyulu, who served as the CIC between 2013 to 2018, which goes as follows:
The Right to Information (Amendment) Bill, 2019 will be a stab in the back of the Central Information Commission (CIC) and a deathblow to RTI. It seriously undermines the autonomy of the information commissions because it reduces the stature of the commissioners, which is now equivalent to the election commissioner and a judge in the Supreme Court. 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 disclosure of information under the RTI Act. As of now the information commissioner has a fixed tenure of 5 years or attaining age of 65 year whichever is earlier. It is difficult to remove the commissioner from office within this term.
This Bill, if passed, will remove the guarantee for the term and stature for five years. This means legislative safeguard to the term of the commissioner is abolished and the government of the day will be empowered to prescribe any term, stature or salary.
The statements of objects clearly stated that CIC is not equal to CEC and hence they are amending it to reduce the stature. It is not clear as to what kind of reduced status they are going to accord to the CIC and SIC. For one recruitment the government may prescribe joint secretary status and three-year term, or for other set of commissioners, the government may give four or two years by frequently changing the rules. Or it may favour other batch recruitment with a six year term and a higher salary.
The legislature did not give this power to Executive in 2005 Act. Now the executive is usurping this power of the legislature, without any justification. It will seriously dent the present independence of the commissioners and make them subordinate to the government departments.
Now itself, the governments are choosing those retiring babus who are very loyal to them, as ICs so that they do not independently act according to the RTI Act.
With this Bill, the persons selected as IC with a reduced stature, term and salary will be further submissive to chief ministers and prime ministers and deprive the citizens of their right to information. This will kill the Right to Information totally.
The Bill is based on two wrongful propositions—that RTI is not a constitutional right and secondly, the earlier Parliament (government) erred in hurriedly equating CIC with CEC.
The Supreme Court proclaimed the RTI as a constitutional right emanating from Article 19(1)(a) which guaranteed freedom of speech and expression.
The Central Election Commission (CEC) enforces the right to vote, which is part of the right to freedom of speech and expression under Article 19(1)(a) which is further explained in Article 324.
In a way, the CEC enforces only a small part of the right to freedom of speech and expression , while the CIC is entrusted with enforcement of wider aspects of this right, namely the Right to information. Without receiving information no citizen can express his views or criticise the wrong policies of the government.
If the RTI requests are answered as per the law, it will directly impact governance, especially public delivery systems and expose the corruption that is widespread in the lakhs of government offices spread all over the nation.
This wrongful measure will make the commissioners spineless and powerless to issue any disclosure order and they will fail to implement the objectives of the RTI Act.
This Bill thus adversely affects the Right to Information and Article 19(1)(a) by undermining the independence of the information commissions by facilitating the government of the day with the huge power of meddling with the stature of the commissioners.
Through this Bill put before the MPs the government is asking for more powers to reduce the capacity of the information commissioners by removing their guaranteed term. It amounts to the removal of commissioners against the scheme and a system that has been working for nearly a decade and a half. If the MPs approve this Bill, ICs will become annexures or appendages of senior babus in the state and Central governments.
I appeal to both Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha MPs to oppose it and see that it is rejected. The responsibility lies more on the members of the Rajya Sabha because they represent states, whose power to appoint independent commissioners is being removed and given to the Centre. I request every Member of Parliament to save RTI and to prevent the government from killing the commissions and this valuable citizens’ right.