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Modi govt move to "weaken" institution of information commissions, adversely impacting their autonomy

Protest in Jaipur against proposed amendments to the RTI Act
By Anjali Bharadwaj, Nikhil Dey, Venkatesh Nayak*
The text of the Right to Information (RTI) Amendment Bill is finally available, one day before Parliament’s monsoon session will commence. The secrecy around the amendments has prevented any meaningful debate or public engagement with the proposed changes. It is a matter of grave concern that the government does not value the opinion of millions of people and information seekers whose fundamental right to information will be impacted through this amendment.
The proposed amendments to the RTI Act will completely destroy the autonomy of Information Commissions set up under the RTI Act, to adjudicate on appeals and complaints of people who have been denied their rights under the RTI Act.
The amendments seek to empower the Central government to decide the tenure and salary and allowances of Information Commissioners of the Central Information Commission and also of State Information Commissions.
This will fundamentally weaken the institution of the information commissions as it will adversely impact their ability to function in an independent manner. The information commissions are the final authorities to adjudicate on claims of access to information, which is a deemed fundamental right under the Constitution. The status conferred on commissioners under the RTI Act is to empower them to carry out their functions autonomously and require even the highest offices to comply with the provisions of the law.
The rationale provided by the government for the amendments is that treating information commissioners on par with functionaries of the election commission is incorrect, as the latter is a constitutional body while information commissions are statutory bodies.
This contention is inherently flawed. The principle of according a high stature, and protecting the terms of service by equating it to functionaries of constitutional bodies, is routinely adopted for independent statutory oversight bodies, including the Central Vigilance Commission (CWC) and the Lokpal.
As the RTI Act stands today, the salaries, allowances and other terms of service of the chief of the Central Information Commission are the same as that of the chief election commissioner. Those of the central information commissioners and state chief information commissioners are on par with election commissioners. The chief and other election commissioners are paid a salary equal to the salary of a judge of the Supreme Court, which is decided by parliament.
The status of information commissioners was extensively discussed during the formulation of the law, including by the Standing Committee. In fact, the Standing Committee opined, “…Information Commission is an important creation under the Act which will execute the laudable scheme of the legislation …It should, therefore, be ensured that it functions with utmost independence and autonomy.”
It recommended that to achieve this objective, it would be desirable to confer on the central chief information commissioner and information commissioners, status of the chief election commissioner and election commissioners respectively. The committee’s recommendation to elevate the status of information commissioners was accepted and passed by parliament.
Therefore, the rationale put forth by the government to amend the RTI Act is completely fallacious.
In fact, there are several issues which require urgent attention of the government to ensure proper functioning of the RTI Act, including making appointments to the large number of vacancies in information commissions, addressing issue of attacks on information seekers by implementing the Whistleblowers Protection Act, addressing poor implementation of proactive disclosures. It is inexplicable that instead of addressing these issues, the government’s sole focus appears to be to weaken the RTI Act.
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*On behalf of the National Campaign for People's Right to Information (NCPRI)

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