UPSC MAINS 2019 : The tremor of unwelcome amendments to the RTI Act

The tremor of unwelcome amendments to the RTI Act

Topic : The tremor of unwelcome amendments to the RTI Act

Topic in Syllabus: General Studies Paper 2: Indian Governance

 

Context:

The tremor of unwelcome amendments to the RTI Act

Recently, The government introduced in Lok Sabha the Right to Information (Amendment) Bill, 2019, which proposes to give the Centre the powers to set the salaries and service conditions of Information Commissioners at central as well as state levels.

 

Background:

What is RTI?

RTI stands for Right To Information and has been given the status of a fundamental right under Article 19(1) of the Constitution Right to Information (RTI) Act 2005 mandates timely response to citizen requests for government information by various Public Authorities under the government of India as well as the State Governments.

 

Right to Information (Amendment) Bill, 2019 -The proposed amendments

Amendments” have haunted the Right to Information (RTI) community ever since the RTI Act came into effect almost 14 years ago.

  • Right to Information (Amendment) Bill, 2019, they seek to amend Sections 13, 16, and 27 of the RTI Act which carefully links, and thereby equates, the status of the Central Information Commissioners (CICs) with the Election Commissioners and the State Information Commissioners with the Chief Secretary in the States, so that they can function in an independent and effective manner.
  • Section 13 of the original Act:
    • It sets the term of the central Chief Information Commissioner and Information Commissioners at five years (or until the age of 65, whichever is earlier)
    • It states that salaries, allowances and other terms of service of “the Chief Information Commissioner shall be the same as that of the Chief Election Commissioner”, and those of an Information Commissioner shall be the same as that of an Election Commissioner.
  • Proposed amendments:
    • The appointment will be “for such term as may be prescribed by the Central Government”.
    • The salaries, allowances and other terms of service of the Chief Information Commissioner and the Information Commissioners “shall be such as may be prescribed by the Central Government”.
  • Section 16 of the original Act deals with state-level Chief Information Commissioners and Information Commissioners.
    • The proposed amendment allows the Central government to control through rules, the terms and conditions of appointment of Commissioners in the States.
    • This is an assault on the idea of federalism.
  • Also, the status of the Central Information Commissioners (CICs) has been brought on par with the Election Commissioners and the status of State Information Commissioners with the Chief Secretary in the States so that they can function in an independent and effective manner.
    • However the amendment has neglected the recommendation of the parliamentary standing committee that the Information Commissioner and CIC were to be made on par with the Election Commissioner and the CEC, respectively.
    • The amendment empowers the Central government to unilaterally decide the tenure, salary, allowances and other terms of service of Information Commissioners, both at the Centre and the States.

RTI 2019 Bill

 

RTI Significance

  • The RTI law has been a breakthrough in creating mechanisms and platforms for the practice of continual public vigilance that are fundamental to democratic citizenship.
  • It has always been a constant challenge to the misuse of power, a threat to arbitrariness, privilege, and corrupt governance.
  • The RTI has been used to question every public institution on matters of public interest like the Reserve Bank of India, the Finance Ministry, on demonetisation, non-performing assets, the Rafale fighter aircraft deal, electoral bonds, unemployment figures, the appointment of the Central Vigilance Commissioner (CVC) etc.
  • Importance of RTI can be ascertained from the fact that nearly 60 lakh RTI applications are being filed every year.
  • The information related to decision-making at the highest level has in most cases eventually been accessed because of the independence and high status of the Information Commission.
  • It has been acknowledged that one of the most important structural constituents of any independent oversight institution, i.e. the CVC, the Election Commissioners (CEC), the Lokpal, and the CIC is a basic guarantee of tenure.


What are the concerns with proposed RTI amendment?

  • The Right to Information (Amendment) Bill is a twin attack on accountability and the idea of federalism.
  • Federalism – The separation of powers is a concept which underscores independence and is vital to India’s democratic checks and balances.
  • The Commission which is vested by law with status, independence and authority, will now function like a department of the Central government.
  • When power is centralised and the freedom of expression threatened, it affects the fundamental federal fabric.
  • Independence – The original Act had quantified the tenures, and defined the salaries in terms of existing benchmarks.
  • The existing institutional architecture thus ensures that the RTI authorities function in an independent and effective manner.
  • The amendments empower the Central government to unilaterally decide the tenure, salary, allowances and other terms of service.
  • These will now be decided on a case-to-case basis by the government.
  • This is more likely to take away the independence of the RTI authorities.
  • Amendment Process – The amendments were pushed through without any citizen consultation, bypassing examination by the standing committee.
  • The mandatory pre-legislative consultative policy of the government has been ignored.
  • Preserving the fundamental nature and purpose of the RTI Act is crucial to guarantee democratic citizenship in India, and so the amendments need a relook.

 

Way forward:

  • The RTI has unshackled millions of userswho will continue to use this democratic right creatively and to dismantle exclusive power.
  • The law is seen as having acted as a deterrentfor government servants against taking arbitrary decisions.
  • The need of the hour is the Government should take into account the concerns of the experts and should arrive at an amicable solution, which ensures sufficient independenceto the Commission.
  • Government should bring the amendment after proper consultationwith civil society and other stakeholders. It should towards strengthening RTI rather than weaken it from within for a sustainable and growing democracy.
  • The RTI has been and will be used to withstand attacks on itself andstrengthen the movement for transparency and accountability in India.

 

Sample Question

The Right to Information (Amendment) Bill 2019 is seen as a twin attack on accountability and the idea of federalism. Comment.

 


 

The tremor of unwelcome amendments to the RTI Act infograph