The RTI Amendment Bill, 2019, was passed by the Rajya Sabha on Thursday amidst ruckus created by certain parties in the Opposition. The NDA does not have a simple majority yet, however, with support from BJD, TRS and YSRCP, the NDA was successful in passing the Bill without any hurdle.
On the face of it, the Bill doesn’t appear to be controversial at all. The amendments proposed are those mundane affairs of the government which doesn’t really affect the citizens at large in any manner whatsoever. However, the Congress Party, the Trinamool Congress and the Left acted as if the sky had fallen over.
The amendments proposed does not have anything to do with the autonomy of the Act. It only seeks to empower the government to fix the tenure of the Chief Information Commissioner (CIC) and Information Commissioners (ICs) at both the central and the state level. The RTI Act, 2005, mandated that the CICs and ICs will hold office for a fixed term of 5 years.
Apart from that, the amendments allow the government to fix the salary of CICs and ICs. According to the 2005 version of the Act, the salary of the CIC and ICs at the central levels will be equivalent to the salary paid to the Chief Election Commissioner and Election Commissioners, respectively.
For CIC and ICs at the state level, the salary was equivalent to the Election Commissioners and the Chief Secretary to the state government, respectively, prior to the amendment. The amendment removes these conditions and grants the central government the power to fix the salaries, allowances, and other terms and conditions of service.
In addition, the amendment removes other aspects pertaining to the salary of the CICs and ICs. Thus, the amendment has nothing to do with the manner in which the RTI Act functions and is supposed to function. It only empowers the government to fix the tenure and salary of the individuals concerned.
The Congress party and its bedfellows, however, want us to believe its the Apocalypse. Not even the BJD, TRS and YSRCP which are not allies of the NDA agree with them on the matter. The three parties voted with the NDA to prevent the Bill from being sent to a select committee.
According to Congress leader Jairam Ramesh, the Bill is “designed to kill RTI”. He claims Narendra Modi is taking “revenge” on the Act as RTI applications had revealed “embarrassing” details about his educational qualifications and other claims of his government. Sonia Gandhi claims that the government is subverting the Act which was “prepared after wide-spread consultations and passed unanimously by parliament” and as a consequence of the Bill, the Act now “stands on the brink of extinction.” They never quite explained how.
Abhishek Manu Singhvi was slightly more coherent with his criticism. He said, “If you leave it to the whim of the government which changes terms of services then you are keeping a Damocles’ sword hanging as an instrument of power over an institution that is supposed to be independent—you are going to downgrade it and ultimately control it. You want to make sure commissioners are in your good books.”
Activists, too, have jumped into the debate. The amendment is being labelled “regressive” and intends to undermine the independence of information commissions. They claim that the government is “hiding something” and that no reasons have been provided for the changes. “They are not being honest,” say the activists.
The apocalyptic proclamations by activists and opposition politicians do reveal a lot about the state of our democracy. While virtues of democracy are exalted by these very individuals, none of them appear to have any faith in it. They want completely autonomous bodies to have constitutional sanction which can function independently of the democratically government. Not even their salaries or their tenure ought to be decided by the people elected by the citizens of this country. Needless to say, ‘autonomous’ in these circumstances often translate into an utter lack of accountability.
Why shouldn’t a democratically elected government be able to decide the tenure, salaries and the related perks of people who are employed by the state machinery itself? Why do these activists believe that institutions of the state can function best only if they are outside the purview of the democratically elected government?
If the opinion is that democratically elected governments are inherently corrupt and will do everything in its power to suppress the truth and it can only be countered by appointing ‘autonomous’ bodies which are completely unaccountable to the elected government, then what is even the point of having a democracy?
We know what happens when such a mentality is allowed to run riot. The Judiciary followed the same precedence, they came to the conclusion that it could perform best if there was no political interference. Thus, they usurped the right to appoint judges to various courts. The Judiciary is as autonomous and independent from political interference as it gets, and yet no person of a sound mind would argue that it functions better than the Indian Parliament. For all their faults, our politicians are still accountable to the people they rule over and we can punish them if we choose to. However, does the citizen of the country have any tool at his disposal if he wants to counter the Judiciary?
The NDA government has gone nowhere near undermining the autonomy of the RTI Act. It has only decided that going forward, it’s the elected representatives chosen by the people to govern this country will decide the terms and salaries of the CICs and ICs. Even that is being construed as an attempt to undermine the institution’s autonomy. It’s pretty outrageous.
A source within the government told OpIndia.com that it has no intentions of undermining the autonomy of the Act. We were told, “The Bill in no way intends to compromise the autonomy or independence of the RTI Act 2005. It is evident from the fact that it is Section 12(4) of the Act which assures the autonomy and independence of the Act and is in no way touched. Similarly, Section 12(3) deals with the appointment of the ICs and this again has not been interfered with in any way.”
As for the reasons behind the amendment, our source told us, “As per the RTI Act, 2005, the CIC is equal to the Chief Election Commissioner and thereby, equal to a Supreme court judge. Similarly, the State Chief Commissioner is equal to an election commissioner and thereby, equal to a Supreme court judge. This itself is an anomaly, considering the fact that the Election Commission is a statuary body while the Supreme Court and Election commission are constitutional bodies. The other contradiction is that CIC and state information commissioners enjoy the status of a Supreme Court judge but the verdict passed is liable to be challenged in the high court. The present bill seeks to correct this anomaly.” The source also told us that the amendment was motivated not by the concerns of the government alone but also sections of the Judiciary.
The source further stated, “The present amendment is merely an enabling legislation which will authorise the government to frame rules by amending Section 27 and to deliberate upon the tenure and terms of services of Central and State Information Commission through Section 13 and Section 16 of the RTI Act 2005 respectively. In a nutshell, the present amendment bill will further streamline and institutionalize the Right to Information act and at the same time bring in further ease in the delivery of RTI Act.”
Thus, the amendment appears to be a rather routine affair that has been blown out of proportions merely because it’s the NDA which has brought about the amendment. It also stems from the misguided notion that political interference of any manner is inherently malicious and ought to opposed tooth and nail.
The opposition by activists and Singhvi as well also reveals how little regard they have for democracy. They want to create a set of autonomous bodies which are completely unaccountable to the elected government. They never answer why should an institution in a democracy be completely independent of the government that was voted into power by the citizens of this country.
They want these bodies to function in parallel to the elected government without any sort of interference whatsoever. Things have reached such a dangerous phase that even fixing terms and salaries, which does not affect autonomy at all, is touted as unreasonable and termed as the destruction of the institution. Imagine the lack of respect they have for the will of the people that they do not want the elected government to even fix the terms and salaries of a statutory body. It’s a dangerous precedent which can have devastating consequences. The Judiciary is a testament to that effect.