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

Unlike other revolutionaries, Hindutva icon wrote 5 mercy petitions to British masters

By Shamsul Islam*  The Hindutva icon VD Savarkar of the RSS-BJP rulers of India submitted not one, two,or three but five mercy petitions to the British masters! Savarkarites argue: “There are no evidences to prove that Savarkar collaborated with the British for his release from jail. In fact, his appeal for release was a ruse. He was well aware of the political developments outside and wanted to be part of it. So he kept requesting for his release. But the British authorities did not trust him a bit” (YD Phadke, ‘A complex Hero’, "The Indian Expres"s, August 31, 2004)

Whither SDG goal? India's maternal mortality rate fall target 5.5% per yr, actual 4.5%

By Srinivas Goli, Parul Puri* The maternal mortality ratio (number of maternal deaths per one lakh live births) is a key and sensitive parameter used by health policymakers to monitor maternal health conditions in particular and women's status in general in a country.

Employment loss vis-a-vis pre-Covid situation 'neutralized', claim Govt of India data

By Arup Mitra, DPS Negi, Puneet Kumar Shrivastav* The Labour Bureau, an attached office of the Ministry of Labour & Employment, has been entrusted with the task of conducting the All-India Quarterly Establishment based Employment Survey (AQEES) which has two components namely Quarterly Employment Survey (QES) in respect of establishments employing 10 or more workers (mostly constituting ‘organised’ segment) and Area Frame Establishment Survey (AFES) to build up a frame in respect of establishments employing nine or less workers.

Savarkar 'criminally betrayed' Netaji and his INA by siding with the British rulers

By Shamsul Islam* RSS-BJP rulers of India have been trying to show off as great fans of Netaji. But Indians must know what role ideological parents of today's RSS/BJP played against Netaji and Indian National Army (INA). The Hindu Mahasabha and RSS which always had prominent lawyers on their rolls made no attempt to defend the INA accused at Red Fort trials.

Fresh efforts to subsume Buddhism within Hindu fold 'undermining' Ambedkar

By Aviral Anand*  From Yeola in 1935, when Dr Ambedkar announced that he would not die a Hindu, to Nagpur in 1956 when he converted to Buddhism, is a considerable distance in time. But, there was in him a need to make a public announcement in 1935 about moving away from Hinduism. 

How green revolution led to 'deterioration' of Punjab economy, land, air and water

By Dr Gian Singh*  A recent research paper, based on a survey of 320 farming families in four districts of Punjab, has tried to show that high crop densities and the use of inputs have led to degradation of land, air, water and humans through a rich agricultural structure. Although mechanization has increased agricultural productivity, it has also caused environmental degradation.

Buddhist shrines were 'massively destroyed' by Brahmanical rulers: Historian DN Jha

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".

Article 370 abrogation hasn't helped curb terrorist attacks: Kashmiri Pandit group

Counterview Desk In a letter to the Lt Governor, Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) in the wake of recent terrorist attacks in the Valley, Kashmiri Pandit Sangharsh Samiti (KPSS) president Sanjay K Tickoo has taken strong exception to what he calls" callous approach" shown by the administration and security agencies towards "non-migrant Kashmiri Pandits / Hindus living in Kashmir Valley".

India's weak fiscal position: Can higher gold reserves help stem further deterioration?

Counterview Desk  India Gold Policy Centre at the Indian Institute of Management-Ahmedabad (IIMA), which has been researching on global gold markets working closely with the Government of India as as an advisor on various policy initiatives in several key areas relating to the use of gold as a fungible financial asset, has claimed that high levels of Central Bank gold reserves has had “positive implications for India.”

India's 55% firms perceive significant, sustained high-cost pressure: IIM-A survey

Costs per unit compare: % responses By Our Representative  A new Indian Institute of Management-Ahmedabad (IIM-A) survey, involving responses from executives of around 1,200 companies across India, has said that the cost perceptions data indicates “sustained high-cost pressures”, with over 55% of the firms perceiving significant (over 6%) cost increase.