Skip to main content

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.

Comments

TRENDING

India's GDP down by 50%, not 23%, job loss 200 million not 122 million: Top economist

By Our Representative  One of India’s topmost economists has estimated that India’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) decline was around 50%, and not 23%, as claimed by the Government of India’s top data body, National Statistical Organization (NSO). Prof Arun Kumar, who is Malcolm S Adiseshiah chair professor, Institute of Social Sciences, New Delhi, said this was delivering a web policy speech, organised by the Impact and Policy Research Institute (IMPRI), New Delhi.

Youngest of 16 activists jailed for sedition, Mahesh Raut 'fought' mining on tribal land

By Surabhi Agarwal, Sandeep Pandey* A compassionate human being, always popular among his friends and colleagues because of his friendly nature and human sensitivity, 33-year-old Mahesh Raut, champion of the democratic rights of the marginalised Adivasi people of Gadchiroli, Maharashtra, has been in prison for over two years now.

India performs 'poorly' in Quality of Life Index, ranks 62nd out of 64 countries

Counterview Desk “Expat Insider”, which claims to be one of the world’s most extensive surveys about living and working abroad, in a survey of 20,259 participants from around the globe, has found that of the 64 destinations around the globe, has found that while Taiwan is the best destination for persons living outside their native country, closely by Vietnam and Portugal, India ranks 59th.

#StandWithStan: It's about Constitution, democracy and freedom of expression

By Fr Cedric Prakash SJ*  It is more than three weeks now: On the night of October 8, 2020, the 83-year-old Jesuit Fr Stan Swamy was taken into custody by the National Intelligence Agency (NIA) from his residence in Ranchi to an undisclosed destination. According to his colleagues, the NIA did not serve a warrant on Fr. Stan and that their behaviour was absolutely arrogant and rude.

Stan Swamy vs Arnab Goswami: Are activists fighting a losing battle? Whither justice?

By Fr Sunil Macwan SJ* It is time one raised pertinent questions over the courts denying bail to Fr Stan Swamy, who was arrested under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA), and granting it to Arnab Goswami, editor-in-chief of the Republic TV, arrested under the charge of abetting suicide of Avay Naik, who ended his life in 2018. It is travesty of justice that a human rights activist is not only denied bail but is also made to wait for weeks to hear a response to his legitimate request for a straw to drink water, while Arnab Goswami walks free.

Human development index: India performs worse than G-20 developing countries

By Rajiv Shah A new book, “Sustainable Development in India: A Comparison with the G-20”, authored by Dr Keshab Chandra Mandal, has regretted that though India’s GDP has doubled over the last one decade, its human development indicators are worse than not just developed countries of the Group of 20 countries but also developing countries who its members.

Buddhist shrines massively destroyed by Brahmanical rulers in "pre-Islamic" era: Historian DN Jha's survey

Nalanda mahavihara By Our Representative Prominent historian DN Jha, an expert in India's ancient and medieval past, in his new book , "Against the Grain: Notes on Identity, Intolerance and History", in a sharp critique of "Hindutva ideologues", who look at the ancient period of Indian history as "a golden age marked by social harmony, devoid of any religious violence", has said, "Demolition and desecration of rival religious establishments, and the appropriation of their idols, was not uncommon in India before the advent of Islam".

Namaz in Mathura temple: Haridwar, Ayodhya monks seek Faisal Khan's release

By Our Representative As many as 23 members of the Hindu Voices for Peace (HVP), including the founder president of the well-known Haridwar-based Matri Sadan Ashram, Swami Shivananda Saraswati, and a one of its top monks, Brahmachari Aatmabodhanand, have expressed their “dismay” over the arrest of Khudai Khidmatdar chief Faisal Khan and three others on charges of “promoting enmity between religions” and “defiling a place of worship” after they offered namaz in Mathura’s Nand Baba temple premises on October 29.

Government of India 'refuses' to admit: 52% of bird species show declining trend

Finn's Weaver  By Our Representative The Government of India has been pushing out “misleading” data on the country’s drastic wildlife decline, says a well-researched report, pointing towards how top ministers are hiding data on biodiversity losses, even as obfuscating its own data. It quotes “State of India’s Birds Report 2020” to note that of the 261 out of 867 bird species for which long-term trends could be determined, 52% have declined since the year 2000, with 22% declining strongly.

Swami Vivekananda's views on caste and sexuality were 'painfully' regressive

By Bhaskar Sur* Swami Vivekananda now belongs more to the modern Hindu mythology than reality. It makes a daunting job to discover the real human being who knew unemployment, humiliation of losing a teaching job for 'incompetence', longed in vain for the bliss of a happy conjugal life only to suffer the consequent frustration.