The Right to Information (Amendment) Bill, 2019 will be a backstab to CIC and deathblow to RTI. It seriously undermines the autonomy of Information Commissions because it reduces the stature of Commissioners, which is now equivalent to Election Commissioner and Judge Supreme Court. Ever since it came into existence in 2005, the Information Commission had enough authority to issue directions to anybody including cabinet secretary, principal secretary, etc regarding disclosure of information under RTI Act. As on now the Information Commissioner has a fixed tenure of 5 years or attaining the age of 65 year whichever is earlier. It is difficult to remove the Commissioner from office within this term.
This Bill if passed, the guarantee for the term and stature for five years will be removed. This means legislative safeguard to the term of Commissioner is abolished and the Government of the day will be empowered to prescribe any term, stature or salary. The statements of Objects clearly stated that CIC is not equal to CEC and hence they are amending to reduce the stature. It is not clear as to what kind of reduced status they are going to accord to the CIC and SIC. For one recruitment the Government may prescribe joint secretary status and three-year term, or for other set of Commissioners, the Government may give four or two years by frequently changing the rules. Or it may favour other batch recruitment with six-year term and a higher salary. The legislature did not give this power to Executive in 2005 Act. Now Executive is usurping this power from Legislature, without any justification. It will seriously dent the present independence of the Commissioners and make them subordinate to the government departments.
Now itself, the Governments are choosing the retiring Babus, who are very loyal to them as ICs so that they do not independently act according to RTI Act. With this Bill, the persons selected as ICs with reduced stature, term and salary will be further submissive to Chief Ministers and Prime Ministers and deprive the citizen of their right to information. This will kill the Right to Information totally.
The Bill is based on two wrongful propositions – that RTI is not a Constitutional Right and secondly earlier Parliament (Government) erred in hurry in equating CIC with CEC. The Supreme Court proclaimed the RTI as the Constitutional Right emanating from Article 19(1)(a) which guaranteed freedom of speech and expression. The Central Election Commission enforces the right to vote, which is part of expression right under Article 19(1)(a) which is further explained in Article 324. In a way, CEC enforces only a small part of the Expression Right, while CIC is entrusted with enforcement of wider aspect of expression right- Right to information. Without receiving information no citizen can express his views or criticise the wrong policies of the Government. If the RTI requests are answered as per the law, it will directly impact the governance, especially public delivery systems and expose corruption widespread among the lakhs of government offices spread all over the nation. This wrongful measure will make the Commissioners spineless and powerless to issue any disclosure order and they fail to implement objectives of RTI Act.
This Bill 2019 thus adversely effects Right to Information and Article 19(1)(a) by undermines the independence of Information Commissions by facilitating the Government of the day with huge power of meddling with the stature of Commissioners.
Through this Bill, put before the MPs the Government is asking for more powers to reduce the capacity of Information Commissioners by removing their guaranteed term. It amounts to the removal of Commissioners against the scheme and system that is working nearly for one and half-decade. If the MPs approve this Bill, ICs will become annexures or appendages of senior babu's in state and Central Governments.
I appeal both Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha MPs to oppose it and see that it is rejected. The responsibility lies more on members of Rajya Sabha (Counsel of States) because they represent states, whose power to appoint independent Commissioners is being removed and given to the centre. I request every member of Parliament to save RTI and do not allow Government to kill the Commissions and this valuable right.
M. Sridhar Acharyulu is Former CIC (2013-2018)
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