Saving RTI through changes

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Sidestepping concerns of civil society, the Centre recently notified the date from which the recent changes in the Right to Information (RTI) Act, 2005 will come into force. The central government hereby appoints October 24, 2019 as the date on which the provisions of The Right to Information (Amendment) Act, 2019 shall come into force, an official notification said without giving further details. The right to information law has come under pressure from authorities ever since it was enacted in 2005. Even some functionaries of the UPA government, which enacted it, had later criticised it. The Narendra Modi government has persistently attacked it and sought to dilute it. The curtailment of the term of the information commissioners from five years to three years under an amendment to the RTI law, passed by parliament in July, is to be seen in that light. RTI activists and supporters of openness and transparency in governance and administration have rightly pointed out that the government’s policy and recent actions are retrograde measures that have put the clock back on a democratic right which has helped to empower citizens as few other measures have done in the past.  The amendments to Sections 13, 16 and 27 of the RTI Act made it possible for the government to unilaterally change and fix the tenure, salary and terms of service of the central and state Information Commissioners.

Their positions were downgraded and their authority diminished. With the reduction of the tenure now and the pay scales and other conditions to be decided periodically on the government’s whims, the commissioners will be at the mercy of the government. An information commissioner who takes a decision which is not liked by the government may be victimised for it. The unfavourable terms and the constraints imposed on the office by these terms will ensure that no capable and self-respecting person will agree to accept the position of information commissioner. In fact, many positions of commissioners have been lying vacant, with the government refusing to fill them, thus making the RTI institution ineffective. The threat to the right to information posed by the amendments was highlighted when the government proposed and got them passed. Transparency activists had slammed the government’s move to amend the RTI Act to take away statutory parity of information commissioners with election commissioners in terms of tenure and service conditions.

It needs to be underlined again and the dangers reiterated when the government is implementing its plan. The opposition to the attempts to make the commissions toothless and subservient to the government should continue, and all those who value transparency of governance and accountability of the executive as important requirements of democracy should join the fight. Opposition parties have decided to raise the issue in the coming parliament session. But there has to be a larger effort to ensure that a right which provides a means to combat corruption, nepotism and misconduct of politicians and bureaucrats is not denied to the people. Larger issues and principles of democracy are involved in this. Union Home Minister Amit Shah has claimed that government is moving to a system where “there will be no need to file RTI applications.”

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