Amid exemplary but hurried efficiency, the latest session of Parliamentary legislation passed amendments to the RTI Act, 2005 which upholds the citizen’s right to information from the government they elected. We analyse the amendment and where it leaves the policy.
With corruption purportedly the biggest menace plaguing a progressing and industrializing India, the government brought in the Right to Information Act in 2005 as a gateway for the citizens of this country into governance and a measure to promote transparency and accountability. It was aimed and claimed to have strengthened the democracy in the country, for championing the individual.
Right to Information Act was introduced in 2005, as a gateway for the citizens into governance and a measure to promote transparency and accountability.
The act was subject to legislation, RTI Amendment Bill, 2019 which was recently passed by both the houses of parliament on July 25th. The bill was subject to a hasty passage, amid opposition protests, in a mere span of six days, having been introduced in the Lok Sabha on July 19th. The protest wasn’t just from the trimmed down polarized political counterparts, it extended to many non-profits, activists and organizations advocating accountability and transparency in governance.
The group even appealed to the President of India to withhold his assent to the Right to Information (Amendment) Bill, 2019. But a dramatic and ‘unpolitical’ turn of events meant that the bill was electronically signed and solidified into law, before the President could return from his official tour abroad. The RTI activists that lead the “Save RTI” campaign argue that the amendment is a form of dilution, which strikes at the heart of people’s fundamental right to information. So, what actually is the Act, what is the amendment and what will be the consequences. Here’s a Dkoded version of the law that gives us the right to know.
Understanding the RTI Act, 2005
As per the RTI Act, 2005, a citizen has the right to ask the government for information regarding any material such as records, e-mails, documents, press release, and contracts if it is relevant to the public interest. It is an obligation for the public authority to create a separate office called PIO (Public Information Officer), which should ensure to provide the information within 30 days and 48 hours if it is related to life and personal liberty.
If it amounts to failure, then the person can appeal to the higher authority, which includes Chief Information Commissioner (CIC) and Information Commissioner (IC) both at the centre and the state level. Section 8 of the RTI Act, 2005 exempted information from disclosure which deals with India’s sovereignty and integrity, security, scientific and economic interests, information restricted by the court of law, breaching the privilege of parliament, state legislatures and many more.
The New Amendments
RTI Amendment Bill, 2019 was passed in the parliament on July 25th which amounts to great criticism by the opposition, RTI activists and former CICs and ICs. This bill amends section 13 (centre) and 16 (state) of the RTI Act, 2005, which states that CIC and IC have the term of 5 years only or until the age of 65, whichever is earlier and it also mentions about their salaries, allowances and other terms of the service.
Black day for democracy. President gives assent to #RTIAmendment Bill. Completely ignored appeal of lakhs of people to #SaveRTI – regressive bill strikes at the heart of our fundamental right to info. Let's pledge that our struggle to use RTI to hold govt answerable will continue pic.twitter.com/a65iKr5yOr— Anjali Bhardwaj (@AnjaliB_) August 2, 2019
CIC (centre) gets the salary equivalent to CEC (Chief Election Commissioner), and IC (centre) equivalent to that of EC and state-level CIC equated with EC and IC equated with Chief secretary of a State. This amendment does not specify the tenure and salaries of CIC and ICs of both at centre level and state level, which now comes under the discretion of the central government. As per denouncers of the amendment, this undermines the federal structure of our country.
The Government’s stance on the amendment
In the parliament, the government defended the amendment on two points:
1) Correcting the anomaly in the RTI Act, 2005 which was passed during the UPA government by stating that they hurried to pass the act and overlooked many things like CIC has been given the status of a supreme court judge, but its decisions can be reviewed in high courts, but this is an inconsequent argument as the decisions of EC can also be reviewed in the high courts.
2) Statutory vs. Constitutional body: Election commission of India and central and state Information commissions are different and needed to be determined accordingly. To secure the independence of the Information commission and to strengthen the RTI Act, the government should upgrade the status and make it a Constitutional body.
How did the RTI Act perform?
The argument of hurriedness during the initial passage of the RTI act in 2005 falls flat due to the fact that the procedure of referring the matter to the standing committee was to scrutinize bills was followed. The time taken to pass the act in 2005 spanned over 4 to 5 months. This arguably showed in numbers. According to the RTI rating by Access Info Europe and the Centre for Law and Democracy, India ranked 6th out of 123 countries. In fact, the quality of RTI is already deteriorating. When this rating was started in 2011, India stood at 2nd for three consecutive years.
Spoke strongly this afternoon in Lok Sabha against the intention of the Govt to dilute the Right to Information Act by taking over the right to fix the salary&tenure of RTI Commissioners. One of my best speeches. Please listen: https://t.co/05iHXkbAtD— Shashi Tharoor (@ShashiTharoor) July 22, 2019
In the past, we saw how RTI disclosed many scams and corruptions. But bureaucratic hurdles and grinding loopholes in law have ensured that such measures haven’t curtailed corruption. India ranks at 78 out of 180 countries in the Corruption Perception Index, 2018.
Where does this leave the Act?
This effectively means that the Information Commissioner government can influence the working of the CICs and ICs, which can lead to arbitrary removal or extension, or their salaries could be increased or curtailed as per the whims and fancies of the government. This has brought many to question the intent of the bill and how it aligns with the ideology of transparency and constitutionality.
By crippling independence of Information Commissions, Centre is finishing the Right to Information Act in India. Killing RTI is killing the law which made governed equal to those governing them, gave a commoner power to question the mighty! Will be most regressive step in years! https://t.co/C6qBQ0TmI1— Swati Maliwal (@SwatiJaiHind) July 22, 2019
Former Central Information Commissioner M Sridhar Acharyulu writes for downtoearth.org: “This Bill seriously encroaches upon the sovereign authority of states. The Centre not only usurped powers from the Legislature, but also from states in determining the status, etc of the state information commissioners. It said that the terms and status of the state information commissioners will be as prescribed by the Centre. This is against the principle of federalism, which is a basic structure of the Constitution that cannot be amended by Parliament. Till today, the CIC had power to direct a cabinet secretary or defence secretary or home secretary or any other principal secretary to give information.”
“This Bill seriously encroaches upon the sovereign authority of states. The Centre not only usurped powers from the Legislature, but also from states in determining the status, etc of the state information commissioners.” – Former Central Information Commissioner M Sridhar Acharyulu
The 17th Indian Parliament’s first session has been lauded for its efficiency. Having recently wrapped up, the session was labelled by current Lok Sabha Speaker Om Birla as the most productive sitting since 1952. But with the praise remains a factor ignored that none of legislations introduced in the session were referred to any standing committee. The session might be categorized as historic in future, but it lacked adequate time and process for pre-legislative scrutiny and discussions before passage of bills.
By: Abhishek Kumar Sushil, Staff Writer, Dkoding Media