RTI (Amendment) Bill passed in RS: BJP sought stronger law when in Opposition, wants to weaken it now, says ex-CIC Shailesh Gandhi

The Right to Information (Amendment) Bill, 2019, introduced by the Minister of State for Personnel, Public Grievances and Pensions, Jitendra Singh, in the ongoing session of Parliament, has a section of Opposition parties and transparency activists up in arms. However, it has been passed in the Lok Sabha on 22 July and in the Rajya Sabha on 25 July.

Interestingly, while the Opposition in the past had successfully stalled contentious legislations that the government sought to push through in the Rajya Sabha (the most prominent of these being the triple talaq bill), the RTI (Amendment) Bill managed to pass the numbers test in the Upper House. This was after the Biju Janata Dal (BJD), the Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS) and the YSR Congress Party — perceived to be political fence-sitters — lent their support to the bill.

In essence, the amendment bill has three components. Firstly, the amendment lays down that the Central government will decide the term of office for the chief information commissioner and information commissioners (at the Central and state levels), whereas earlier, the posts were for a fixed term of five years. Secondly, the Central government will also decide their salaries, as opposed to earlier, when the salaries were equivalent to certain designated posts in the Election Commission and the bureaucracy. Thirdly, the amendment lays down that the salaries of information commissioners should not be “varied to their disadvantage after their appointment,” whereas the original Act stated that if the officials were getting a pension from the Central or state government at the time of appointment, their salaries would be reduced by an amount equal to the pension.

 RTI (Amendment) Bill passed in RS: BJP sought stronger law when in Opposition, wants to weaken it now, says ex-CIC Shailesh Gandhi

File image of former CIC Shailesh Gandhi. Image courtesy: Twitter @shaileshgan

One of those who have expressed alarm over the proposed amendments is former Chief Information Commissioner (CIC) and RTI activist Shailesh Gandhi. In a detailed interview with Firstpost, he lashed out at the Central government for pushing through the legislation in Parliament, despite the BJP having taken a contrary stand when it was in Opposition.

Edited excerpts follow:

What are the main reasons for your opposition to the RTI (Amendment) Bill?

First and foremost, there has to be some reason to introduce any legislation, or amend any existing legislation. The reasons that the government is putting forward to amend the RTI Act do not make any sense. In the Statement of Objects and Reasons for the bill, it is stated that the information commissions and the Election Commission cannot be at par, as the former are statutory bodies, while the latter is a constitutional body. However, this reasoning is flawed. There are several bodies such as the National Green Tribunal and the National Human Rights Commission whose members are considered to be at par with Supreme Court judges or Election Commissioners. The NGT and NHRC are also statutory bodies. As a matter of fact, this hierarchy of sorts between the constitutional bodies and statutory bodies is itself uncalled for.

Secondly, in the last 14 years (since the original Act was passed), there has not even been a whisper of protest over these existing provisions — whether from judges, the Election Commission or even the government itself. So why is this amendment suddenly being sought to be pushed through?

What do you make of the government’s stand on the legislation?

The minister for DoPT (Jitendra Singh) had said in Parliament that decisions of the information commissions can be challenged in appeals to the high court, and thus, their present status is not justified. But in reality, there is no appeal against the decisions of information commissions to high courts. The decisions can be challenged under writ jurisdiction, through which the high court can stay or strike down an order, or ask the information commissioner to apply his or her mind to certain aspects of a case. But high courts can exercise such powers when it comes to orders of the President and governor as well. It cannot be suggested that due to this, the president and the governor are being brought to the level of the high court.

You mentioned that the reasons for bringing in the amendment are unclear. What do you believe is the real aim of the bill?

The only implication that one can derive from this is that the government wants to control the information commissioners. Even under the existing arrangements, information commissioners are political appointees, and have been selected through an arbitrary method. A large proportion of them are beholden to the government. Incidentally, the same also holds true for bodies such as the Lokayukta, and commissions for women, children, etc.

Even under the present law, there are only a few information commissioners who would pass orders that could make the ruling establishment uncomfortable. The government’s aim appears to be to keep them in check.

On the point about equating of the election commissioners with information commissioners, there is a bit of very peculiar history. When the original bill was proposed by the United Progressive Alliance (UPA), the then government wanted to equate the status of the chief information commissioner with the secretaries to the Government of India, and the other commissioners with joint secretaries. The legislation was referred to the parliamentary committee in December 2004. The committee had six to seven BJP MPs, one of whom was (current president) Ram Nath Kovind. They had then contended that the information commissioners should not be made equal to secretaries and joint secretaries, and that for the sake of autonomy, they should be placed on a footing equal to the election commissioners. The BJP wanted a stronger commission when it was in the Opposition, and now, it wants to weaken it.

You have previously worked as the Chief Information Commissioner, and have been an RTI activist for several years. In your experience, how effective has the legislation been since 2005?

It has been reasonably effective — it is empowering citizens, and enabling them to monitor the government, and hold it accountable. While we have the best laws on right to information in the world, implementation remains a problem. This has been partly due to the approach of the government, and partly because a significant number of information commissioners are reluctant to take a pro-transparency stand.

Updated Date: Aug 01, 2019 16:33:50 IST