The Rajya Sabha on Thursday passed the Right to Information (Amendment) Bill 2019, which was cleared by the Lok Sabha on Monday.
The motion to refer the Bill to Standing Committee was rejected by the majority. After this, the opposition members staged a walk out in protest.
The Deputy Chairman declared the Bill passed based on a voice vote held later. The lower house had passed the Bill with 218 'yes' votes as against 79 'no' votes.
The Bill proposes to change the fixed term of the Information Commissioners, and make their pay and service conditions subject to the executive rules to be made by the government.
At present, the Chief Information Commissioner and Information Commissioners have a fixed term of five years. The amendment bill changes the period of office of Chief Information Commissioner and Information Commissioner as "for such term as may be prescribed by the Central Government". In the same manner, the term of office of State Information Commissioners is curtailed by the amendment. This is through amendments made to Section 16.
Section 27 of the Act is amended to give rule making power to the Central Government to determine the pay, allowances and service conditions of Information Commissioner.
This means that the tenure of the Information Commissioner can be fixed as per the executive rules framed by the Central Government.
Further, the amendment gives power to the Central Government to fix the salary and allowances of Chief Information Commissioners and State Information Commissioners.
As per the present RTI Act, the salary and allowances of the Chief Information Commissioner and Information Commissioners are the same as that of the Chief Election Commissioner and Election Commissioners respectively, which are fixed as per provisions of the Constitution.
The RTI Act has consciously given Information Commissioners status and privileges equal to Election Commissioner in order to ensure that they function independently and autonomously.
As the reason for the amendment the bill states, "the mandate of Election Commission of India and Central and State Information Commissions are different. Hence, their status and service conditions need to be rationalised accordingly".
While introducing the Bill, Jitendra Singh, Minister of State for Ministry of Personnel, Public Grievances and Pension, said that Information Commission was a statutory body and it was an anomaly to equate it to a constitutional body like Election Commission. Making Information Commissioners equal to the status of Election Commissioners means that they are at par with Supreme Court judges. However, the orders of Information Commissioners can be challenged in High Court. Therefore, there is an apparent anomaly in the status of Information Commissioners, which needs to be rectified, explained the Minister.
Minister Jitendra Singh said that the amendment is merely an enabling legislation and government has no ulterior motives. The attempt of the government is not to undermine the autonomy of Information Commissioners, but to bring in uniformity in services, said the Minister. He also pointed out that the Sections 12(4) of the Act, which ensure the autonomy of Information Commissioners, has been left untouched by the amendments. The process of appointment of Information Commissioners as specified in Section 12(3) has also been kept the same, the Minister added.
Senior Advocate Dr A M Singhvi, Congress member from West Bengal, opined that the amendment will make CIC akin to a 'sarkari department'. He cited the instance of former Central Information Commissioner Sridhar Acharyulu losing the charge of files in HRD ministry after he passed a disclosure order in respect of educational qualifications of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
"If government can change conditions anytime, the Information Commissioners will feel that there is a sword hanging over them, which strikes at the root of their independence", Singhvi said.
Congress leader Jairam Ramesh said that the timing of the amendments is not innocent' or innocuous. There are five cases which have propelled the govt to bring forward these amendments. These are the orders passed by the CIC directing disclosure of the educational qualifications of the Prime Minister, the details of black money retrieved by the government, the list of defaulters submitted by former RBI director Raghuram Ranjan, the details of RBI board meeting before the announcement of demonitization and the information which disproved claims made by PM in Lok Sabha regarding weeding out bogus ration cards. These orders caused huge embarrassment to the government, said Jairam Ramesh.
"The real reason is to make IC toothless", he said.
Swapan Dasgupta, nominated member, said that 'activists' have hijacked the RTI to play 'surrogate politics'. The decision making process of governments has been impaired by the "fear of RTI". The amendments are merely "cosmetic", said Dasgupta.
Several persons, including former Information Commissioners, have spoken against the Bill. Altering the salary structure and tenure of the Information Commissioners will weaken their authority and make them subservient to the political executive, said M Sridhar Acharyulu & Yashovardhan Azad Former Central Information Commissioners (2013-18).
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