EDITORIAL | Death blow to citizens’ RTI

EDITORIAL | Death blow to citizens’ RTI

Right to Information is being undermined


The Modi government’s attempt to weaken the Right to Information (RTI) Act through an amendment Bill needs to be opposed and defeated again, and this responsibility now falls on the Rajya Sabha. The government had proposed to bring in an amendment to the 2005 law last year but went back on the move in the face of widespread opposition. But it has revived the plan now and the Lok Sabha on Monday passed the Bill. The Bill proposes to change the tenure of the Central Information Commissioner (CIC) and the Information Commissioners (IC) at the central and state levels. At present, the tenure is for five years or till the attainment of 65 years of age. This is to be changed to a “term as may be prescribed by the central government.” It also seeks to make changes in their salaries and allowances “as may be prescribed by the central government.” At present, the terms of service and salaries of the CIC and the ICs are the same as those of the Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) and the Election Commissioners (EC) respectively.

The amendments will compromise the autonomy and independence of the CIC and the information commissioners and thus the RTI system itself. A free hand for the government to decide the tenure of the CIC and the ICs will mean government control over them. This will affect their ability or willingness to provide information that is inconvenient to the government. The government’s argument is that the CIC and the ICs are statutory bodies, created by an Act of Parliament, and they cannot be equated with the CEC and the ECs, who are constitutional authorities. But this is an inadequate ground for the changes because the Supreme Court has declared the right to information as a constitutional right of citizens. The court has also endorsed the existing terms and conditions of appointment of the CIC and the ICs and wanted them to be specifically stipulated and advertised. Moreover, the Modi government appears to be singling out the RTI institution because in June 2017 it upgraded the pay and terms of appointment of 19 statutory tribunals and adjudicating authorities to the level of CEC and ECs. The states’ powers will also be eroded by the amendment because the Centre will now assume their power to appoint commissioners. What is needed is to make the CIC and the ICs constitutional offices, and to better implement the RTI law, not to weaken the institution.

The RTI has empowered citizens like few other legislations have and has enabled them to hold governments and their functionaries to account. The independent and autonomous powers of the CIC and the ICs have often enabled citizens to assert their right against governments reluctant to share information with them. This is now under threat from the Modi government.