New Delhi: The amendments to the Right to Information Act proposed by the government will compromise the autonomy of the transparency panel by making it subordinate to the executive, former central information commissioners said on Wednesday.
The Right to Information (Amendment) Bill, 2019 proposes to give the Centre the powers to set the salaries and service conditions of information commissioners at the central and state levels.
The government's move has triggered protests from the Opposition and RTI activists, who allege that the Bill seeks to undermine the authority of the information commissions.
"Chief information commissioners could survive only because the law prescribes their tenure. One cannot disturb him/her until he/she completes the complete five-year term or 65 years of age. We would have been finished long ago had there been no such rule in the Act," former information commissioner M Sridhar Acharyulu said. "The government is not telling Parliament what will be the status of information commissioners...will that be equal to a secretary or upper-division clerk?" he said.
The commission should be independent of the government because it deals with issues wherein it directs the administration to provide information. After the amendment to the RTI Act, the information commissioners will be totally dependent on the government for tenure and salaries, Acharyulu said.
Wajahat Habibullah, the first chief information commissioner, claimed that through the amendment the government seeks to usurp Parliament's power to determine the salaries of the information commissioners and their tenure fixed by the RTI Act at the central and state levels. "The government kept the amendment bill a top-secret and introduced it in Parliament without any public consultation. Is this how they are going to provide information to common people under the RTI Act?" he said.
An independent commission — in terms of pay and tenure — can direct the government to provide information, otherwise withheld by the administration, if it thinks the public should have access to it, former information commissioner Yashovardhan Azad said. "How will information commissioners be able hear a common man's plea against government officials if they are made subordinate to the executive?" he asked. It also subverts the principle of federalism, with the Centre deciding pay and tenure of state information commissioners, they said.
Former information commissioner Shailesh Gandhi said that the government has given no plausible reason to amend the RTI Act. Countering the government's claim that the RTI Act was drafted hurriedly and therefore, there were anomalies in it, he said that before being passed in 2005, the bill was referred to a Standing Committee, which examined all the provisions at length and recommended that in order to ensure autonomy of information commissions, the commissioners should be given a status equivalent to election commissioners who in turn are equivalent to Supreme Court judges. He pointed out that several MPs of the BJP were part of the Standing Committee and in fact, President Ram Nath Kovind was also a member.
Updated Date: Jul 25, 2019 09:31:05 IST