[dropcap]S[/dropcap]EVEN former Information Commissioners of the Central Information Commission addressed a press conference in Delhi and unanimously condemned the move of the NDA government to amend the RTI Act through the RTI Amendment Bill 2019.
Wajahat Habibullah, Deepak Sandhu (both former chief information commissioners), Shailesh Gandhi, Sridhar Acharyulu, M M Ansari, Yashovardhan Azad and Annapurna Dixit (former information commissioners) termed the amendment a direct attack on the autonomy of information commissions and peoples’ fundamental right to know and urged 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.
Shailesh Gandhi said that the government had given noplausible 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.
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 the autonomy of information commissions, the commissioners should be given a status equivalent to election commissioners (which in turn are equivalent to Supreme Court judges). Gandhi pointed out that several MPs of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) had been a member of the standing committee and in fact the current President of India, Ram Nath Kovind was also a member.
Gandhi rejected the other justification put forth by the government that because decisions of information commissioners are challenged in high courts, their status being equivalent to Supreme Court judges was causing legal hinderances. He said that decisions of all authorities including those of the President and Prime Minister are challenged before high courts and that their status does not prevent or debar such challenges. Gandhi said the government was not being honest about why it was bringing these amendments.
Deepak Sandhu said that the RTI Act came through a social movement and it was great to see that the movement was 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.
Sandhu 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 that the RTI Act had been functioning for the last 14 years without any problem regarding the tenure and status of information commissioners. He said 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. He said if the amendments pass and the government has powers to fix the salary and tenure of commissioners through rules, a situation could arise where different commissioners would have different tenures and salaries.
Azad underlined that most of the lakhs of RTI applications filed every year were filed by the common citizens and the marginalised sections of society in a bid to secure their rights and entitlements from the government. In most cases decided by the commission, the respondent was the government and therefore, in order to ensure that commissions can function independently, he said their autonomy must be protected.
Azad said that 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 urged that like the Prime Minister was inviting suggestions for his show, he should ask for suggestions of people on the RTI Amendment Bill.
M M Ansari
M M Ansari highlighted how there were questions over attempts to undermine independent bodies like the CBI, the Election Commission and said that it seemed like now it was the turn of information commissions. He said the genesis of the RTI came from Supreme Court rulings on how the right to information was a pre-condition for informed voting and therefore, parity between information and election commissioners was not an anomaly.
Questioning claims of the government’s commitment to the RTI Act and transparency, Ansari highlighted that 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, he highlighted that the government had discontinued the Janane ka Haqshow which used to be a weekly show on the RTI Act broadcast on DD News. The failure to appoint information commissioners in a timely manner was leading to pendency increasing. He said that if there is a downgradation in salary and tenure of commissioners, eminent people may not apply for vacant posts.
Annapurna Dixit said she was opposed to the amendments and the attempted dilution could only be described as discrimination against the RTI Act. She cited that there are other bodies like the CVC which are also statutory but whose salaries and status are at par with Constitutional bodies (in this case the UPSC members) even though the 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 had repeatedly said that the right to information was 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”, Acharyulu 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. He further pointed out that as the amendments would 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 and whether states would allow the centre to decide allocation.
Wajahat Habibullah said that there was no reason for this amendment as salary and tenure had 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 Lok Sabha, he was weak on facts.
Habibullah said if at all any amendment was to be brought in should be to make the information commission a constitutional body. He said that the government deciding salaries and tenures would beholden commissioners to the government and create apprehensions in their minds. He said since the government flagship programme was on safai, the RTI Act was the best tool to ensure swachhtain governance and therefore, should not be weakened.
Anjali Bhardwaj & Lokesh Batra
Anjali Bhardwaj, co-convenor of the National Campaign for Peoples’ Right to Information said that there have been consistent efforts to undermine the institution of information commissions. Since 2014, the government had not appointed a single commissioners, unless the courts intervened. She said that protests were being held across the country to oppose the amendments, which if passed would fundamentally dilute peoples’ right to know.
RTI activist Lokesh Batra referred to the recent Supreme Court judgment in February 2019 regarding the timely and transparent appointment of information commissioners and said despite that the government had till date not filled the four vacant posts in the CIC.
The press conference was held at Indian Women’s Press Corps (IWPC) in New Delhi.