Why proposed amendments to the RTI Act must be opposed
Any attempt to dilute the law would deal a blow to the ability of people living at the margins to hold the government accountable.
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The government has listed a Bill in the current session of Parliament to amend the Right to Information (RTI) Act, 2005. There are at least five reasons why the proposed amendment must be opposed by everyone concerned about the health of India’s democracy.
First, the RTI Amendment Bill has been drafted in complete contravention of all principles of pre-legislative consultation. The proposed amendments were not placed in the public domain prior to being listed in Parliament. This precluded any possibility of citizens expressing their views, suggestions and concerns about the contents of the Bill.
The RTI Act, 2005 was enacted as a result of a strong people's movement with extensive inputs from citizens of diverse socio-economic milieus. This resulted in the creation of a law which is considered to be one of the most progressive information access legislations in the world. No amendments to the law must be made without following a robust democratic process of consultation with the people of India who have demanded, used and protected this law.
The government has listed a Bill in the monsoon session of Parliament to amend the Right to Information (RTI) Act, 2005.
Second, the proposed amendment would seriously weaken people's fundamental right to information. The amendments seek to destroy the independence of information commissions — the final adjudicators under the law, responsible for ensuring that provisions of the RTI Act are not violated.
The RTI law fixes the tenure of information commissioners at five years, subject to the retirement age of 65 years. The salaries, allowances and other terms of service of the chief of the Central Information Commission are fixed at the same level as that of the chief election commissioner. Those of the central information commissioners and state chief commissioners, are on a par with election commissioners. The chief and other election commissioners are paid a salary equal to the salary of a judge of the Supreme Court, which is decided by Parliament.
The amendments seek to empower the central government to decide the tenure, salaries, allowances and other terms of service of all information commissioners in the country. This is a clear attempt to undermine their independence as it would potentially make commissioners compliant with the wishes of the government at the Centre, lest their tenures or salaries are adversely impacted.
Third, the rationale provided for the amendments is completely fallacious. The Bill states that treating information commissioners on a par with functionaries of the election commission is incorrect, as the latter is a constitutional body while information commissions are statutory bodies.
There is, however, nothing preventing any law from securing tenure, and protecting terms of service of statutory regulatory bodies by equating them to functionaries of constitutional bodies. In fact, this practice is being followed for various institutions, including the CVC and the Lokpal. The fixed tenure and high status conferred on commissioners under the RTI Act is to empower them to carry out their functions autonomously and direct even the highest offices to comply with the provisions of the law.
The proposed Bill states that treating information commissioners on a par with functionaries of the election commission is incorrect.
Fourth, the Indian RTI Act has empowered millions of Indians to hold public functionaries accountable for delivery of basic rights and entitlements. Anywhere between four and six million RTI applications are filed every year across the country, of which a large proportion are by the poorest and the most marginalised who seek information about their basic rights denied to them due to corruption.
Sunita Devi, a resident of a slum settlement in Delhi, was not provided her rations under the Public Distribution System (PDS) for years on the pretext that her ration shop was not receiving foodgrains. When she filed an application under the RTI Act and accessed a copy of the monthly stock register of her ration shop, it showed that the shop was receiving its full quota of ration every month. The sale register was a complete work of fiction, with names of people who were either dead or did not live in the slum.
Using the information obtained, Sunita exposed the corruption in the PDS in her constituency and managed to get justice, not just for herself, but thousands like her. The RTI Act has empowered citizens like Sunita Devi to access their right to food, old age pensions, water, sanitation, healthcare and education.
Any attempt to dilute the law would deal a blow to the ability of people living at the margins, in remote villages and slums of the country, to hold the government accountable for the delivery of basic services and rights.
Finally, the RTI Act has been used extensively by citizens to question the highest offices in the country. People have used the law to verify the educational qualifications of elected representatives and sought information about assets held by public servants. Innumerable big-ticket scams, like the Vyapam scam and the Adarsh scam have been unearthed using the RTI Act. The law has given people an opportunity to closely monitor the functioning of their government and participate meaningfully in the process of governance. Any dilution of the legislation, which is being used so effectively to show truth to power, would be detrimental for the country.
Public and political opposition to the RTI Amendment Bill has forced Modi sarkar to defer its introduction in Parliament. One hopes that the government will drop the idea of amending this seminal piece of legislation. In the meantime, there is little choice but to collectively oppose the onslaught on our fundamental right to information.