“The bill proposing changes in Right To Information (RTI) Act is aimed at undermining the independence of information commissions”, said Aruna Roy, a pioneer behind the advent of the RTI Act, 2005.
In what seems to be an attempt to infringe on the independence of the institution, the Parliament had passed the RTI (Amendment) Bill, 2019 which further extended the process of making the Information Commission (IC) a department of the government. The RTI Act 2005 was the fruit of ambitious demonstrations that took place in Rajasthan under the leadership of Aruna Roy, a social activist.
The RTI Act 2005 was a breakthrough as it helped citizens gain access to government data. It gave citizens the right to ask questions, which ensured the accountability of the government to the people. According to activists, nearly sixty lakh RTI applications are filed every year. The RTI Act has been used persistently to ask questions across various domains such as village ration shops, the Reserve Bank of India (RBI), and more powerful institutions. However, with the new amendments, the very purpose to provide information independently is challenged.
The proposed amendments, viz., section 13, 16 and 27 of the RTI Act empowers the Central government to decide the tenure, salary, allowances and other terms of services of information commissioners. The bill changes the terms and conditions of service of the Central Information Commissioner (CIC) at the centre and in the States. Earlier, the tenure of CIC was of five years, now with the amended bill, it would be decided by the centre. The salary of the CIC and Information Commissioner (IC) was at par with Supreme Court judges, and will now be decided by the centre.
Firstly, the new amendments are being seen as an assault on the idea of federalism. It has diminished the status of the CIC, State CIC, and IC compared to that of a supreme court judge, which would reduce their ability to issue directives to senior government functionaries. Also, the commission will lose its independence and will function rather as a department of the central government. When power is centralised, and when there is a curb on freedom of speech, this threatens democracy too. Secondly, the amendments also empower the centre to make rules regarding tenure and allowances which could weaken the institution, as it will adversely impact the ability of commissioners to function in an independent manner. Also, the way in which the bill was passed, it was kept a secret as there were no consultations on the bill, could impact the fundamental right to information of the citizens of the country.
Recently, the Rajasthan government launched the Jan Soochna Portal, which is a major development in the realm of access to information. The portal will provide information, at various levels—district, blocks et al. Along with government data, the number of beneficiaries under various schemes would also be displayed in the portal. This initiative by the Rajasthan government ensures transparency and shows accountability in its spirit. The central government and other state governments could learn from the Jan Soochna Portal.
As Voltaire had emphasised throughout his writings, freedom of speech is the main feature of modernity. But, with this act, the freedom of the RTI Act’s ability to share information has come under threat. But, in a democracy, through popular movements by activists, civil society groups, non-governmental organisations, and citizens, we can and must make the government rethink their stance and push to let the RTI Act remain ‘transparent’.
In the aftermath of the French Revolution, Jean Jacques Rousseau spoke about “general will“. He said that the French Revolution is an example of ‘general will’, where the individual’s aspirations are aligned with the collective will by including all sections of society to bring a change in the social order. Thus, the same collective will is needed to ensure the independence of Information Commissioners so that they continue to provide us information fearlessly.
Note: The author is part of the current batch of the Writer’s Training Program.