RTI: some cry foul, others say ‘finally!’

Some social activists in city feel our right is threatened; others see this as a relief to corruption

The Narendra Modi government has been heavily criticised by the opposition, social rights bodies, RTI activists and editorials for “diluting” the powers of one of India‘s most cherished and most utilised institutions, the Information Commission.

The Right to Information Act 2005, had given information commissioners the rank and salary of election commissioners, who in turn enjoy the same status as Supreme Court judges.

The Act had also prescribed that information commissioners be appointed for a fixed term of five years, unless they reach the age of 65 during the term.

The latest amendment will pull them down by a peg or more, stripping them of a fixed term, while their salary will be set by the government of the day.

Many believe this is just to intimidate the commissioners into doing what the government wants for fear of being sacked or losing a potentially fat pay cheque.

Bengaluru’s RTI activists seem divided on the matter.

Sai Datta, who has been in the news for speaking out against the BBMP’s RTI cell, says, “already, the questions asked through RTI queries aren’t being answered, especially when there is corruption in the concerned departments. The new amendment will 100 per cent lead to corruption.”

Meera K, founder of Citizen Matters civic media, in an email interaction, shared two Citizen Matters articles that document how “RTI has been a powerful mechanism for citizens and media to uncover scams and fix accountability in Bengaluru” over the years.

One article, written in 2012, highlighted how RTI queries revealed that although the BBMP had spent over Rs 1 crore on the Koramangala 1st block park between 2007 and 2010, no work had been done as of the time the article was written.

The other, dated 2013, showed how the queries had thrown light on how a Rs 2,300-crore realty project was going on in Koramangala, about which BWSSB had no idea.

Meera said the latest amendment only reflects a “pattern” of how transparency in governance was resisted by “every government” over the years.

There are others who believe that the information commissioners got just what they deserved.

After the National Campaign for Peoples’ Right to Information released a press note slamming the government’s move and calling for protest, city-based activist B H Veeresha wrote his “comments” on the note, which he circulated on online media.

The ‘comments’ Metrolife received as a WhatsApp message, said, “Only persons who are close to Chief Ministers and belongs to their community are now being appointed as Chief Information Commissioners and Information Commissioners in Karnataka.”

“Present SCIC (the Karnataka chief) Mr. Srinivasa belongs to the community of Kumaraswamy and was close to him,” he adds.

Later, in a phone conversation, Veeresha repeated his point, stressing that over the years, many Information Commissioners in Karnataka have misused their powers and the election commissioner-level status, and that this amendment only seeks to rectify this problem, since “no structural changes have been made to the RTI”. “N C Srinivasa is maintaining a safe distance from the appellants and citizens and refuse to meet them claiming he is holding the rank of Election Commissioner... No citizen can meet him at his chamber whereas Politicians and Advocates have been given free access,” the WhatsApp note says.

“Some Information Commissioners are hearing 10 to 15 cases a day while some are hearing 30 to 40 cases. They can not be questioned because they enjoy immunity,” it says.

Veeresha claims that more than 30,000 RTI queries are pending, some right from 2013, and that answers are not being given on a first come, first served basis.

Vikram Simha, who was among the first to explore the possibilities of RTI, did not have a very high opinion of the Karnataka Information Commission either. Although recognised as veteran activist, he despises the word ‘activist’ because he feels it is too attached to extortionists who only look at the Act as a means to money. He prefers to be called an “RTI user”.

And as a ‘user’, he believes, the controversy over the amendments is uncalled for as the users will not be affected by this at all. He says the problem is that the state commission is not accessible to many people from rural areas, many of whom who do not know how file an RTI report, and that the commission is not making the situation better.

“First they should fix the selection committee that chooses Information Commissioners,” he says, “one man who became a commissioner was a dentist who was teaching orthodontics.”

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