'By diluting RTI, Modi govt wants to quash opposition'

'By diluting RTI, Modi govt wants to quash opposition'

Ramon Magsaysay Award winner and founder of Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS) Aruna Roy (DH Photo)

After the NDA government succeeded in getting amendments to the RTI Act passed in the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha, Ramon Magsaysay Award winner and founder of Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS) Aruna Roy, who spearheaded the RTI movement in India, spoke to Tabeenah Anjum of Deccan Herald. Excerpts from the interview:

Q. How will the amendments in the bill affect the RTI ACT 2005? And what is the difference between the two? 

The amendments proposed to the RTI Act will adversely affect the independence of the Information Commissions. Information Commissions are tasked with ensuring that the RTI regime functions well. When controls pass to the government, the Commission, which acts as an appellate authority, will be controlled and influenced by the pressure of the government. The Commission looks at contentious issues arising from points of interpretation of the law as well. The effectiveness of the RTI to control high-level corruption will be drastically affected.

The RTI Act, 2005 states that the status of the Information Commissioners will be equivalent to that of Election Commissioners, in both the centre as well as the states. The amendments passed by Parliament this year says that the salary and tenure of the Information Commissioners – of both the centre as well as the states – will be decided by the central government.

Q. After Lok Sabha, the Bill has also been passed in the Rajya Sabha? What are the options left now? 

We are now going to demand that Information Commissions be made constitutional bodies. Rather than diluting the status of Information Commissions, we will now demand that they be upgraded. The justification provided by the government for bringing in the amendments is that Information Commissions, which are statutory bodies, cannot be at par with Election Commissions, which are constitutional bodies. This justification is incorrect since there is no legal basis for this argument and there are other statutory bodies, such as the CVC and Lokpal, which are at par with the Election Commission to give them operational independence. 

Q. Why do you think the central government did the amendment in the rush? Are they afraid of the RTI Act?

Questioning has always been inconvenient for those in power. But the current ruling dispensation is especially uncomfortable with questioning. So much so, that anybody questioning the government might be labelled as anti-national. Among many other things that the government is doing to suppress dissent and discourage those who disagree with the government from expressing themselves, is diluting the RTI. This is a part of the larger agenda of the government to quash any opposition.

Q. Do you feel the Bill is disrespectful to the scores of RTI activists who have sacrificed their lives?

Most certainly. On the one hand, there are scores of people who have died to obtain information and, on the other hand, those in power are ramming through changes to make it even harder for people to obtain information. The disconnect between the will of the people and those in power could not have been more stark.

Q. The I & B minister Prakash Javadekar has said that the bill does not compromise the autonomy of Information commission. How far do you agree?

This is misinformation being peddled by the Information and Broadcasting Minister. The government has been conveniently misinterpreting things to their advantage in several other contexts as well, such as in the case of Aadhaar

Q. The BJP has released a factsheet to defend the RTI amendment bill. How far do you agree with that document?

Like some others in our campaign have been saying, the factsheet is short on facts. The entire messaging of the government on this issue has been with the purpose of obfuscation. The factsheet is a diversionary tactic on the part of the government so that the real issues are not discussed.

Q. Have there been any previous attacks on RTI Act since it was brought?

There have been several attempts to dilute the Act since it has been passed. However, none of the previous attempts was made in so much secrecy. It is almost like the government wanted to ambush the RTI community. In the spirit of transparency, the government should have made the proposed amendments public with sufficient advance notice and invited public feedback and consultations. The haste with which these amendments have been brought without any transparency speaks of the fear of the RTI and its immense potential. 

Q. The RTI has a rich history, which has been mentioned in the book ‘The RTI Story: Power to the People’. What do you remember most when you look back two decades down the memory lane?

The history of the RTI is the story of the people of India fighting to get back some of their sovereignty, reduce the imbalance of power between the state and the citizen and make the government more accountable and democratic. The law has been fought for and adopted by the people of India who cherish it, thereby genuinely making it a peoples’ law. The past 24 years are a testament to the power of the people and their triumph over those in power.

Q. There would be many, but any specific moment close to your heart related to the RTI struggle from Rajasthan (Which gave the birth to RTI​)?

What always keeps me going and moves me the most is that fact that this law has been given to this nation by the struggle of the poor and marginalised. Not only did they participate in the long protests for this right, they even supported it financially by giving in cash and kind - right from hundreds of poor peasants who gave a few days to protest every now and then with 4 kilos of grain from every household, to the first dharna in Beawar, a Thelawalla who gave vegetable on discount, the local chai wallah sold  subsidised  tea , to the hundreds of small farmers who sent us vegetables and wheat to feed people at the protest. It is this commitment that formed the bulk of the prolonged struggle for this law for 11 years, that is closest to my heart.