Autumn Number 2019

Crippling RTI Act

RTI to Save RTI

Amitava Chowdhury

The opening as well as budget session of 17th Parliament creates history by passing the highest number of bills since independence which was severely criticised by the Opposition parties and alleged that those were passed without any scrutiny and cannot be in anybody's interest.

RTI Amendment Bill is one of those. Despite objection and protest of people from all walks of life the amendment got the sanction from the President of India thus the amendment process became completed.

Practically Government never came out with the details of the amendment and hence very few have a clear idea about it. Let us see the amendment part and discuss its ramification and how it will jeopardise the interest of the common users and will spoil the entire spirit and essence of the RTI Act.

Amendment made in the Sec. 13 and Sec. 16 wherein it was respectively specified the salary and tenure of the Central Chief Information Commissioner and other Central Information Commissioners as well as of the State Chief Information Commissioner and other State Information Commissioners. At the time of the enactment the then Chairperson of National Advisory Council Smt. Sonia Gandhi raised her voice against this amendment and in a written press release she mentioned one thing which is very pertinent in this context, that this Act was passed unanimously in both the Houses of Parliament. Not only that this was in the public domain and people at large participated and contributed in many ways to make it so much pro-people. Most interestingly the portion which was amended finally it was suggested by no one else but the Standing Committee of the Parliament and more surprisingly today's President of India was one of the member of that Committee who recommended the amended clauses.

However, this amendments need a detail discussions as there is a scope to think that how the common users are coming in the picture as it is related only to the salary and tenure of the Central Chief Information Commissioner / State Chief Information Commissioner and other Central/State Information Commissioners, Whether they are getting 1 lac or 2 lacs per month or be in the post for two years or five years how those are coming in the way of getting information and why the common people will feel concern about this. Here is the crux which needs serious attention.

To understand it properly we have to find out who or which offices are coming under the purview of the RTI Act, precisely all the important offices of our country such as the office of the President, the Prime Minister, the Speakers of the both the Houses i.e. Lok Sabha & Rajya Sabha, The Chief Justice of India, The Chief Election Commissioner and similarly all those offices of State such as office of the Governor, the Chief Minister etc.. Now being the custodian of the Act, in the case of Central Government the Central Chief Information Commissioner and Central Information Commissioners are responsible / entrusted to look after and instruct these offices to provide the information in case of refusal / non compliance of the Act. Similarly State Chief Information Commissioner and State Information Commissioners are duty bound to instruct the highest offices of the State to perform as per the provision of the Act. Hence it was the Standing Committee of the Parliament only suggested to fix up the salary of the CIC as per the salary of Chief Election Commissioner and other Information Commissioners salaries is same as per the Election Commissioner. The salary of the State Chief Information Commissioner was fixed as per with the Election Commissioners. And State Information Commissioner's salaries are as per with the salary of Chief Secretary of that State. These were done to keep the status of both the offices at the same level so that there should not be any problem of hierarchy.

To make the above portion more laudable there is a need to add few more lines. In 1947, 15th August we not only got our Independence but one more thing happened i.e. we all become Citizens from Subjects. Prior to that almost two centuries we were the subject of Britishers' and prior to that of Raja, Maharaja and Nawab. And not only that, according to the preamble of our Constitution we are empowered with Liberty, Equality, Fraternity and Justice. But hardly we can feel that and that is due to that status. Let us have one example to understand it more clearly. Starting from middle class all of us is an employer. Employees are of his/her domestic help, drivers etc. and as they are paying the salary to their employees, they consider those peoples are answerable to them and ask thousands of question for an absence of a single day. But do these employers think to feel in that same way in relation to the SP and DM, can they even in dream think to consider it in the same way. But just think that they are getting salary from the taxes what the citizens are paying every day to the coffer of the Government.

Every citizen of our Country pays taxes, the poorest of the poor used to purchase a match box / one kg. of salt and by that way all of us are paying taxes and the Government functions with that money including the expenses of the salary.

This RTI Act, gives us that right, Right to Seek Information and that too from the highest offices. Any citizen of India can seek information about the educational qualification of Prime Minister; can seek information about the purchase of RAFFEL or about the delivery and subsequent status of EVM machines. And being the custodian of this Act, the Information Commissioners are working to keep this Act functional and instruct the PMO, Central Election Commission and other offices to provide those information and to keep their morale high the then Parliament and the Member of the Standing Committee incorporated those clauses about the salary and tenure within the Act itself, kept it within the safe boundary of the Act, which is now amended and repealed and now this right is vested in the hand of the Central Government to fix it by rule and that too as and when they feel it is required, that means there is nothing permanent in nature, for one recruitment may prescribe joint secretary status and three-year term, or for other set of commissioners, may give two or four years by frequently changing the rules every time as per the whims or need of the Government.

At the end let us discuss the logic/correctness of the statement of the concerned Minister made at the time of presenting this Bill. He told that as Central Information Commission is a statutory body and Central Election Commission is a constitutional body, the salary of the Commissioner cannot be the same, and at the time of enactment Government made it out of haste. This is not correct for number of reasons. Firstly it was not made out of haste as already we discussed that it was the decision of the standing committee of Parliament. Secondly this is not the first time or the only instances. The salary of the Central Vigilance Commissioner is same as the Chief of Union Public Service Commission wherein the CVC which was formed in the year 2003 is a statutory body and the UPSC is a Constitutional body. The other instance is National Human Rights Commission which is also a statutory body, formed in the year 1993 and the salary of its Chief is same as of the Apex Court.

Further Central Election Commission being a Constitutional body protects the right of expression provided in the Article 19(1)(a), in number of cases Apex Court proclaimed Right to Information as a Constitutional Right emanating from Article 19(1)(a) which guarantees freedom of speech and expression. Practically Election Commission protects only a small part of expression right by way of protecting right to vote while Information Commission enforces the expression right in much wider way by providing Right to Information without out which Right to Expression is meaningless.

To conclude let us hope that judiciary and public demand will force the government to withdraw this draconian amendment.

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Autumn Number 2019
Vol. 52, No. 13 - 16, Sep 29 - October 26, 2019