The Right To Information Act Is Under Threat Again, And This Time It Is The Modi Government

Posted on September 23, 2014 in Politics

By Anjali Bhardwaj, Amrita Johri, Bhanupriya Rao:

The Right to Information Act is under threat once again! This time due to the Government’s inaction in appointing the Chief Information Commissioner in the Central Information Commission (CIC). For the first time in the history of the RTI Act, the CIC is without a Chief. Judging by the lack of initiative and intent  of the Government on the issue of appointment of the Chief, it might well be a case of waiting for Godot.

How can the Central Information Commission function smoothly without a Chief?

The Central Information Commission is an independent appellate body set up under the RTI Act to adjudicate on appeals and complaints of citizens who have been denied access to information under the law. The Central Information Commission is responsible for overseeing the functioning of the Act and disposing appeals pertaining to the Central Government, Union Territories and Delhi. The Commission has various powers under the Act including the order disclosure of information, penalizing officials for delaying or denying information and compensating the appellant for any loss suffered. One of the landmark rulings by the CIC was the order in June 2013, when it ruled that political parties were public authorities and hence were mandated to come within the purview of the RTI Act.

The Chief Information Commissioner, plays a central role in the functioning of the Information Commission. The RTI Act says that the  ‘general superintendence, direction and management’ of the Commission rests with the Chief. Apart from the fact that a statutory body cannot remain headless, there is a possibility of the decisions being challenged in a court of law.

Then there is the issue of the efficiency and management of the information commission itself, which is impaired in the absence of a Chief. Already there is a huge backlog in the Commission with close to 25,000 appeals and complaints pending. Often people have to wait for more than a year for their appeals and complaints to be heard. The absence of a Chief will cause the pendency in the Commission to increase further.

Where is the delay in appointment of the CIC? More importantly, why?

The Central Information Commission has been without a CIC for a month now. As a practice, the incoming Chief is selected in advance to assume office as soon as the incumbent’s term is over. A selection committee consisting of the Prime Minister, the Leader of Opposition in the Lok Sabha (LoP) and a Union Cabinet Minister recommend names to the President, who appoints the Information Commissioners.

If media reports are to be believed, the ambiguity surrounding the LoP issue is the reason for the delay in the appointment. However, the drafters of the RTI legislation had the foresight to anticipate a situation that we find ourselves in today and ensured safeguards in the law. The RTI Act clarifies that in the absence of a recognised Leader of Opposition, the Leader of the single largest group in opposition in the Lok Sabha shall be deemed to be the Leader of Opposition for the purposes of the selection committee.

When reminded of this absolute clarity in the RTI Act which ought not to have confounded the Government at all, the MoS for Personnel, Public Grievances and Pensions, Jitendra Singh in a presser on the 8th of September, said that ‘the process was underway and the Chief would be appointed soon’. Its been 13 days since and yet no word from the Government!

Is this the real face of the decisive, efficient and transparent governance promised to us by Mr. Modi? What happened to the clarion call to fight corruption and establish an ‘Open, Transparent and Systems-based Government’?

Our RTI Call-a-Thon (A process of calling our MPs to demand accountability that we started the last time the RTI Act was in danger), found key BJP MPs unconcerned by the threat to the RTI. BS Yeddyurappa feigned ignorance of the matter while Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi, a General Secretary said ‘the process is underway’ before he hung up.

The Opposition and the deafening sounds of silence

The silence of the government on the issue is only equally matched by the studied silence of the opposition. This is the same opposition, the Indian National Congress, that trumpeted its achievement of passing the RTI law in the run up to the elections. In one interview, the leader of the party, Rahul Gandhi, mentioned RTI as many as 33 times as an achievement of the UPA Government! And yet today, when the hour arrives for questioning the Government on protecting that very Fundamental Right to Information, the opposition remains a silent bystander.

That anticipation of action from the opposition may well be futile, if our conversations or attempts at having one, are any indication. The office of Mallikarjun Kharge (the leader of the INC on the floor of Lok Sabha) told us, during our RTI Call-a-Thon, that it is ‘not the business of the opposition to worry about the appointment of the Chief Information Commissioner -it’s the responsibility of the Government’.

What can you do?

If doing nothing were an option, it would be mighty convenient to opt for it. But when the grave danger of our Fundamental Right to Information being denied to us, stares us in our face, being silent is no longer a luxury we can afford. Here is what you can do:

  1. Sign and share this petition asking the PMO to appoint a Chief Information Commissioner.
  2. Participate in ‘RTI Call-a-Thon’. Call your MP and ask them to write to PMO India to appoint a CIC. Tell us of their response by sharing it on the SaveRTI Facebook page.
  3. Participate in the ‘SaveRTI challenge’. Familiar with the Ice-bucket challenge and the ‘Book challenge? Well, here is ‘SaveRTI challenge’. All you need to do is sign and share the petition and tag 10 of your friends to do the same.
  4. If on twitter, follow the handles @sns_india @AnjaliB_ and @saveRTIIndia. Use the hashtag #SaveRTI and stay tuned as we tweet updates and participate in the upcoming tweetathons.
  5. If you are a social media enthusiast, you could tweet/FB to MPs using this database developed by Grassroute India

Join the campaign to #SaveRTI. Its your fundamental right and let no one take that away from you. Act now!