The Indian parliament on Thursday approved the changes in the RTI Act, which will hand over the power to decide the salary and the length of the service of the Chief Information Commissioner and Information Commissioners to the central government. The amendment was approved by parliament after the Rajya Sabha also approved the changes through a voice vote.
The voice vote in the Upper House was preceded by high drama as it negated an opposition motion for sending it to a select committee. The Lok Sabha, the Lower House of the parliament, had already passed The Right to Information (Amendment) Bill, 2019 on Monday. While UPA Chairperson Sonia Gandhi had condemned the government for severely compromising the independence of the CIC and ICs, her party, the Congress, on Thursday staged a walkout.
The government’s ability to have the RTI Amendment Bill passed in the Rajya Sabha, where it lacks a majority, was largely because of the fact that small regional parties reportedly threw their weight behind the Bill. They included Jagan Reddy’s YSR Congress, Naveen Patnaik’s BJD and K Chandrashekar Rao’s TRS. The TRS had earlier reportedly decided to oppose it, but Home Minister Amit Shah spoke to KCR to seek his support for the Bill. Prime Minister Narendra Modi too reportedly phoned Patnaik seeking his party’s support in the Rajya Sabha.
Former Chief Information Commissioner Sridhar Acharyulu, who famously ordered the inspection of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s degree, had earlier urged Indian parliamentarians to reject the changes suggested by the central government in the existing Right to Information (RTI) Act.
Terming the development as a ‘stab in the back,’ Acharyulu had said that the changes in the RTI Act will make Information Commissioners spineless. “If the MPs approve this bill, ICs will become annexure or appendages of senior babus in state and central governments. I appeal to both the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha MPs to oppose it and see that it is rejected,” Acharyulu was quoted by news agency PTI.
Activist Aruna Roy too expressed her ‘grave concern’ over the proposed amendments to the RTI Act adding that the changes had been introduced in complete secrecy and ‘in flagrant violation of the Pre-Legislative Consultation Policy of the Central government, which mandates public disclosure and consultation on draft legislation.’
The Right to Information Bill, which was passed in the Lok Sabha through voice vote has empowered the central government on deciding the terms of CICs and ICs at both the central and state levels. The proposed changes, if passed in the Rajya Sabha, will also allow the central government to have a say on the salaries, allowances and other terms and conditions of service.
Information commissioners currently have a fixed tenure of five years or attaining the age of 65 years, whichever is earlier. This provision makes it difficult for the government to remove the commissioner from office within this term. Activists say that this was to ensure the independence of ICs under the RTI Act so that they could function without interference from the government.
With the government now controlling the service tenure and salaries of information commissioners and the CIC, experts say that the revolutionary act that brought about the much-needed transparency in governance is effectively dead.