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RTI amendment: Would Govt of India now 'downgrade' statutory bodies CVC, NHRC?

Protest in Delhi against RTI amendment bill
By Our Representative
Hundreds of people took out a protest march in Delhi on Monday against what its main organisers, the National Campaign for Peoples’ Right to Information (NCPRI), termed "regressive amendments" being made to the Right to Information (RTI) Act. Shouting slogans of "RTI Bachao, Loktantra Bachao", protestors concluded the march at the Constitution Club where a Jan Manch was held.
Even as the Bill was passed in the Lok Sabha, leaders of several opposition parties, including Congress, Communist Party of India (CPI), Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) and Aam Admi Party (AAP), spoke at the Jan Manch. Terming the amendments to the RTI Act as ‘anti-people’, the parties pledged support to save the RTI Act.
The government introduced the Right to Information (Amendment) Bill, 2019 in the Lok Sabha on July 19, 2019. The amendment Bill was brought to Lok Sabha without any public debate on the contents of the Bill, regretted participants in the rally.
Congress leader and MP Rajeev Gowda said that the government was targeting laws which empowered people to ask questions of the government and acted as a system of checks and balances. He said the intention of BJP was very clear.
Instead of strengthening accountability laws by operationalising the Whistle Blowers Protection Act, which was passed in 2014, the government has focussed on destroying the RTI Act, Gowda said, adding, the Congress will stand with peoples’ demands and will oppose it tooth and nail in Parliament. It will demand that the Bill be referred to a parliamentary committee.
Manoj Jha, leader and RJD MP, said that people had fought for the RTI Act, adding, it was peoples’ commitment that had saved the RTI law till now and it is imperative that large protests are organised across the country to save the RTI Act. However, he lamented, given the numbers equation in Parliament, it would be difficult but pledged full support.
D Raja, Rajya Sabha MP and general secretary, CPI, said that the Modi government has reduced Parliament to a rubber stamp. There is no proper discussion on legislations. BJP uses its brute majority to push through amendments, which undermine peoples’ rights. He added, the government was completely opposed to transparency, citing the introduction of electoral bonds, which allows anonymous donations to political parties.
Ghanshyam Tiwari of the Samajwadi Party said that the government is dismantling all the laws which empower people to hold power to account and is focused on centralising power. He cited amendments being made to other human rights laws as well.
Prashant Bhushan said that the government is trying to undermine the RTI Act because they want to hide information which would expose their misdeeds. Citing recent cases, he said the government was refusing to disclose information on who travels with the Prime Minister on his foreign travels, on the Rafale scam, on sources of funds of BJP and also on which corporates are being awarded contracts.
Wajahat Habibullah, former Chief Information Commissioner of the Central Information Commission (CIC), said that the statutorily protected tenure and terms of service of information commissioners was crucial to allow them to work without fear or favour.
Anjali Bhardwaj and Nikhil Dey, co-convenors of the NCPRI, said that protests had been planned across the country and wou!d be carried on everyday. They urged parties to demand that the RTI Amendment Bill be referred to a Parliamentary Committee to allow proper debate on it and also allow people to send their views.
Citing several recent important orders of CIC, including the those related to disclosure of non-performing assets (NPAs), names of loan defaulters, educational qualifications of political leaders, details of demonetisation, mining development licenses awarded to corporates, they said, these highlighted the need for having safeguards to ensure independence and autonomy of commissions.
The organisations that participated in the protest march and the Jan Manch, apart from NCPRI, included the National Alliance of Peoples Movements (NAPM), Right to Food Campaign and the National Federation of Indian Women (NFIW).

Arbitrary amendments

Meanwhile, in an email alert, senior RTI activist Venkatesh Nayak, who is with the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, said that the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) in its third term "has sought to encroach upon Parliament’s power to determine the salaries and allowances payable and the tenure fixed by the RTI Act for Information Commissioners at the Central and State level."
Nayak said, "In its current form, the RTI Act equates the salaries and allowances to the Central Information Commissioner, other Central Information Commissioners and the heads of State Information Commissions with that of the members of the Election Commission."
He added, "State Information Commissioners are entitled to salaries and allowances similar to the Chief Secretary -- the highest ranking babu in a State. They all are granted a tenure of five years and can serve for this period as Information Commissioners or head of such bodies or until they reach the age of 65 years."
According to Nayak, "The Central government wants to remove this fixity by seeking the power to make Rules to determine salaries and allowances and tenure of all Information Commissioners across the country (except Jammu and Kashmir to which the Central RTI Act does not apply)."
While tabling the amendment Bill, he said, the Union Minister of State for Personnel, Public Grievances and Pensions tried to explain last week that such bodies established by an ordinary statute cannot be equated with constitutional bodies like the Election Commission of India for the purpose of fixing salary and allowances.
"Public memory is short", Nayak asserted. "This is where historians, civil society advocates and the investigative media must come in to delve deep into legislative history and critically examine the Government’s justification for bringing in these amendments. 
Nayak recalled, "In 2003 NDA-I placed the Central Vigilance Commission (CVC), a statutory body, at par with the Union Public Service Commission (UPSC) in terms of salaries and allowances."
He continued, "Ten years earlier, in 1993, the Central government placed the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), another statutory body, at par with the Supreme Court of India in terms of salaries and allowances of the Chairperson and Commissioners."
Insisted Nayak, "Going by the Union Minister’s justification for the RTI Amendment Bill, should citizens expect the downgrading of salaries of the heads and members of the CVC and the NHRC in the near future?"
He wondered, "If not, the proposed RTI amendments will smack of manifest arbitrariness -- a ground for challenging their validity in the Constitutional courts. The government’s explanation for amending the RTI Act is unconvincing. What is the problem it is trying to fix through these amendments?"

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