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Seven ex-information commissioners oppose RTI amendment, say govt 'not honest'

By Our Representative
Seven former Information Commissioners of the Central Information Commission (CIC) have condemned the move of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government to amend the Right to Information (RTI) Act, terming it a direct attack on autonomy of information commissions and peoples’ fundamental right to know, urging the government to withdraw the "regressive" amendments.
The RTI Amendment Bill 2019 was passed by Lok Sabha on July 22, 2019 and is now listed for passage in the Rajya Sabha. Pointing out that if passed, the Bill would fundamentally dilute peoples’ right to know, Wajahat Habibullah, Deepak Sandhu (both former chief information commissioners), Shailesh Gandhi, Prof Sridhar Acharyulu, MM Ansari, Yashovardhan Azad and Annapurna Dixit (former information commissioners) addressed media amidst protests across the country against the amendments.
Shailesh Gandhi said that the government has given no plausible reason for bringing amendments to the RTI Act. He countered the claim of the government that the RTI Act was drafted hurriedly and therefore, there were anomalies in it.
He added, the RTI Act before being passed in 2005 was referred to a Standing Committee, which examined all the provisions at length and recommended that, in order to ensure autonomy of information commissions, the commissioners should be given a status equivalent to election commissioners (which in turn are equivalent to Supreme Court judges).
Pointing out that several MPs of BJP were members of the Standing Committee and the current President of India, Ram Nath Kovind, was its member, he rejected the other justification put forth by the government that, because decisions of information commissioners are challenged in high courts, therefore their status being equivalent to Supreme Court judges was causing legal hindrances.
He said, decisions of all authorities, including those of the President and the Prime Minister, are challenged before high courts and that their status does not prevent or debar such challenges, underling, the government is not being honest about why it is bringing these amendments.
Deepak Sandhu said, the RTI Act came through a social movement and it is great to see that the movement is still alive to protect the Act. She underlined the failure of the government to hold any pre-legislative consultation on the RTI Amendment Bill. The commissioners said that the bill should be referred to a Select Committee to enable public consultation.
She highlighted that peoples’ right to information emanates from the constitutional right to freedom of speech and expression, and information commissions, being the final adjudicatory body under the Act, are tasked with protecting a fundamental right and, therefore, their autonomy and independence must be protected.
Yashovardhan Azad said, the RTI Act has been functioning for the last 14 years without any problem regarding the tenure and status of information commissioners. He added, the Amendment Bill was a clear attempt by the government to control the tenure and salary of information commissioners and the government seeking these powers would most probably lead to a downgrade.
According to him, if the amendments pass and the government has powers to fix salary and tenure of commissioners through rules, a situation could arise where different commissioners will have different tenures and salaries. He underlined that most of the lakhs of RTI applications filed every year are filed by the common citizens and marginalised sections of society in a bid to secure their rights and entitlements from the government.
Azad said, in most cases decided by the commission, the respondent is the government and, therefore, in order to ensure that commissions can function independently, their autonomy must be protected. Instead of strengthening the RTI Act by proper implementation of proactive disclosure, greater transparency in appointment of commissioners, the government was amending the law, he added, urging the Prime Minister for suggestions of people on the RTI Amendment Bill.
MM Ansari highlighted how there are questions over attempts to undermine independent bodies like the Central Bureau of Investigation and the Election Commission, saying, now it is the turn of information commissions. He said the genesis of the RTI comes from Supreme Court rulings on how right to information is a precondition for informed voting and, therefore, parity between information and election commissioners is not an anomaly.
Questioning claims of the government’s commitment to the RTI Act and transparency, he underlined, an assessment was undertaken on compliance with provisions of proactive disclosures by public authorities. Only one-third of the public authorities responded to the survey sent to them and the analysis showed dismal implementation of Section 4 of the Act.
Further, Ansari noted, the government has discontinued the 'Janane ka Haq' show which used to be a weekly broadcast on the RTI Act on Doordarshan News. Failure to appoint information commissioners in a timely manner was leading to pendency increasing, and if there is downgradation in salary and tenure of commissioners, eminent people may not apply for vacant posts, he added.
Annapurna Dixit said, the attempted dilution could only be described as discrimination against the RTI Act. She added, other bodies like the Chief Vigilance Commission (CVC), which are also statutory but their salaries and status are at par with Constitutional bodies like the Union Public Service Commission (UPSC).
According to her, even though CVC is not the final appellate body for a fundamental right and only has recommendatory powers, unlike the information commissions. She questioned the need for the amendment and said that the government should withdraw the bill.
Sridhar Acharyulu said that the RTI Amendment Bill was not just an attack on the RTI Act but also on the Constitutional right to freedom of speech as the RTI emanates from there. He highlighted that the Supreme Court has repeatedly said that the right to information is a fundamental right and that is what empowered the central government to even legislate the RTI Act which was even applicable to states.
Terming the reasons given by the government for the amendment bill as “illogical logic”, he said commissions could survive only because their tenure and salary were protected by law. He further highlighted that in the amendments the government was not specifying what status commissioners would be given.
Underlining the importance of a high status, he said, that was crucial to enable commissioners to give directions to even the cabinet secretary or principal secretary, adding, as the amendments will empower the Central government to fix salaries of even state information commissioners, there were serious questions of federalism, as salaries of state commissioners come from the funds of the state, wondering if states would allow the Centre to decide allocation.
Wajahat Habibullah said that there was no reason for this amendment -- salary and tenure has not been a point of problem or contention. He said though the minister gave an eloquent reply in Parliament during the passage of the Amendment Bill in the Lok Sabha, he was weak on facts.
He said if at all any amendment was to be brought, it should be to make the information commission a constitutional body. He added, the government deciding salaries and tenures would beholden commissioners to the government and create apprehensions in their minds.
Anjali Bhardwaj, co-convenor of the National Campaign for Peoples’ Right to Information (NCPRI), which organised the media interaction, said that there have been consistent efforts to undermine the institution of information commissions. Since 2014, the government has not appointed a single commissioners, unless the courts intervened.
RTI activist Lokesh Batra referred to the recent Supreme Court judgment in February 2019 regarding timely and transparent appointment of information commissioners and said, despite that the government had till date has not filled up four vacant posts in the CIC.

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