With the Rajya Sabha passing the Right to Information (RTI) Amendment Bill 2019, which would effectively curtail the privileges and compromise the status of the Central and state information commissions, the only hope for RTI activists all over the country, is to send a petition to Shri Ram Nath Kovind, President of India, urging him to decline his consent to the bill and return it to the Parliament.
Before becoming the President of India, Mr Kovind, whose signature is crucial for the Bill to turn it into the Amended Act, had been one of the prominent members of the Standing Committee, representing the Rajya Sabha, for the Right to Information Bill, which was presented to both the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha on 21 March 2005. His strong support to recommendations that finally led to the strong legislation of the RTI Act 2005, has been scripted in black and white. Particularly important is Section 25.3 of the Standing Committee report, which categorically states that it is of utmost importance that the Central Information Commission, which will execute the legislation, should have “utmost independence and autonomy.”
Against this background of the President being fully aware of the reason why the RTI Act needs to be strong, RTI activists in Pune have collectively written a letter to him, urging him to reject the bill. Their objections are that the tenure of the chief information commissioner must not be at the discretion of the government as it might lead to arbitrary misuse of powers; that the reappointment of the information commissioners will lead to conflict of interests and that the status related to salaries, position and authority will be compromised which will defeat the very purpose of the Act.
Pune’s RTI activists have formed an organisation to campaign and protest against the amendments by the name of `Mahitichaadhikar Bachao Andolan- (Save RTI Campaign)’ and will chalk out an action plan at a public meeting to be held on Saturday. The campaign is being steered by Vijay Kumbhar, Vishwambhar Choudhari, Maruti Bhapkar, Aseem Sarode, Jugal Rathi, Vivek Velankar, Vishwas Sahasrabuddhe, Ibrahim Khan, Tanmay Kanitkar, Madan Kurhe, Suniti S.R andme.
The following is the letter written to Shri Ram Nath Kovind, President of India:
Shri Ram Nath Kovind
The Honourable President of India.
Sub –Appeal to reject recent amendments to the Right to information Act 2005
We write to you to oppose the amendments introduced as the Right to Information (Amendment) Bill, 2019 in the Lok Sabha on 19 July 2019. The amendment bill was introduced into the Lok Sabha without any public debate on the contents of the bill. On 22 July the bill was passed in the Lok Sabha.
The bill is likely to be passed in Rajya Sabha too and come to you for your consent very soon.
The government aims to amend Section 13, 16 and 27 of the RTI Act. The proposed amendments are aimed at undermining the independence of information commissions, thereby diluting India’s strongest and most widely used law for transparency and good governance. Sir, you were a member of the parliamentary standing committee which thoroughly discussed each and every Section of the RTI bill in five sittings in 2005.
Here is the excerpt, from the standing committee report, which we urge you to consider when the RTI Amendment Bill 2019 comes to your table for your consent. “25.3 The Committee is of the view that the Central Information Commission is an important creation under the Act which will execute the laudable scheme of the legislation and will hold an all India responsibility for this. It should, therefore, be ensured that it functions with utmost independence and autonomy. The Committee feels that to achieve this objective, it will be desirable to confer on the information commissioner and deputy information commissioners, the status of the chief election commissioner and the election commissioner, respectively. The Committee, accordingly, recommends insertion of a suitable provision in the clause to this effect.’’
Now suddenly, the government had introduced an amendment to this Act. Reasons given for such amendments are not only illogical but are also unacceptable in the eyes of the law. The statement appended to the present amendment bill complains that the Central information commissioner and the information commissioners are at Par with the judges of the Supreme Court. There is no logic in this argument as there are several public authorities whose heads’ salaries are equivalent to those of the Supreme Court judges.
In fact, in June 2017 the government had upgraded the statuses of 19 public authorities and had brought some of them on par with the judges of the Supreme Court.
There is serious suspicion on the Central government’s intention as to why it is removing the conditions mentioned in the Act itself. Such provisions are made in the Act to protect the independence of information commissions.
Removing these provisions from the Act and concentrating them in the hands of the Central government will surely end in undermining the independence and autonomy of the information commissions.
Hence we urge you to reject the Right To Information (Amendment) Bill 2019.
(Vinita Deshmukh is consulting editor of Moneylife, an RTI activist and convener of the Pune Metro Jagruti Abhiyaan. She is the recipient of prestigious awards like the Statesman Award for Rural Reporting which she won twice in 1998 and 2005 and the Chameli Devi Jain award for outstanding media person for her investigation series on Dow Chemicals. She co-authored the book “To The Last Bullet - The Inspiring Story of A Braveheart - Ashok Kamte” with Vinita Kamte and is the author of “The Mighty Fall”