The Supreme Court on Monday reprimanded the Union of India for failing to file its response to a plea challenging the 2019 RTI Amendment Act and the Rules framed thereunder.
The bench of Justices D. Y. Chandrachud and M. R. Shah was hearing ex-Union Minister and Congress MP Jairam Ramesh's writ petition challenging the amendments in the RTI Act. The Court had issued notice on the plea in January last year.
When advocate Kanu Aggarwal, being led by SG Tushar Mehta, for the Centre sought time file reply, Justice Shah demanded, "The notice was issued in January, 2020! What have you been doing?"
"It is a very important matter! What is wrong with you?, The vires of the RTI Act are challenged!", observed the judge.
Justice Chandrachud also noted that the petition under Article 32 challenges the constitutional validity of the 2019 RTI Act and the Rules specifically made and that one year has elapsed since notice was issued.
Considering the importance of the matter, the bench granted two weeks' time to the Centre to file reply, proceeding to list the matter for final disposal.
The Parliament had in July 2019 passed the Right to Information (Amendment) Bill 2019, 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.
The 2019 Amendment to the RTI law has been challenged as being violative of object of the parent statute itself- "There is no rational nexus between the Amendment Act/Rules and the object of the Act itself"
Further, it is contended that it infringes fundamental rights guaranteed under Articles 14, 19(1)(a) and 21 of the Constitution.
The petition avers that the Amendment Act alters the erstwhile fixed tenure of 5 years of the Central and State Information Commissioners under sections 13(1), (2) and 16(1), (2) respectively of the RTI Act, to a tenure to be prescribed by the Central Government and
It is iterated that absolute power is bestowed on the Central Government to prescribe the salaries, allowances, and terms and conditions of service of the central and state information commissioners that in the pre-amended Act was fixed to be on par with election commissioners under section 13(5) and 16(5) respectively of the RTI Act.
The explicit grant of rule making power to the government over fixing the tenure, salaries and service conditions of Information Commissioners under Section 27 of the pre-amended Act is pointed out.
"The ostensible reasons for such amendments, as per the Statement of Objects and Reasons, is for 'rationalising' the service conditions", the petition reads.
It also impugns Rules 3 and 12 for prescribing a tenure of 3 years for the office of Central as well as State Information Commissioners, and Rules 5 and 14 for stipulating the
the salaries of the Central and the State Information Commissioners to be at the pleasure of the Central government.
Rule 21, under which the Central Government is granted with absolute power to decide the "conditions of service" of Information Commissioners not expressly covered under the rules, is further questioned as the residuary power.
That the decision of the Central government is binding upon the Information Commissioners has been attacked for allowing unbridled and uncanalised discretionary power to the Central Government that jeopardises the independence of Information Commissioners. Given that post retirement benefits, pensions and allowances are not explicitly in these rules, the Central Government is granted absolute power to change these from time to time.
Moreover, Under rule 22, the Central government has been empowered with the discretionary "power to relax" the applicability of the provisions of RTI Rules for any class or category of persons in the CIC and SIC, thereby raising concerns about the government's potential to invoke these excessive powers to determine selective tenures, terms and conditions for different CICs and SICs at the time of appointment, as per its whims and fancies.Finally, by virtue of Rule 23, the final interpreter of all the rules is to be the Central government. "This grants the central government excessive power over governing the salaries, allowances and service conditions of information commissioners", it is argued.