By Priya Singh, Christ University, Bengaluru.
The Parliament recently passed the Right to Information (Amendment) Bill, 2019. This Amendment Bill was proposed to amend the Right to Information Act of 2005. Despite strong opposition protest in the Lok Sabha and an opposition walkout in Rajya Sabha, the Amendment Bill has been ratified by both Houses of the Parliament. The opposition had proposed to refer the Bill to a standing committee that would decide its constitutional validity, however, this was not assented to by the majority.
The Bill was introduced in the Lok Sabha by the Minister of State for Personnel, Public Grievances and Pensions, Mr. Jitendra Singh. The Bill was introduced in the Lower House of Parliament, Lok Sabha, on July 19, 2019, and was passed by the House on July 22, 2019, following which, it was sent to the Upper House of the Parliament, Rajya Sabha. It was passed by Rajya Sabha on July 25, 2019.
Under the Right to Information Act passed by the Indian Parliament in 2005, which allowed the citizens to request access to public records, the Central Information Commission and State Information Commissions were set up. For each of these commissions, the Chief Information Commissioners for the States and the Center were to be appointed for a term of five years (or until they attained 65 years of age, whichever is earlier), along with Information Commissioners, under Section 13 of the Act. The new amendment takes away the security of tenure from the Chief Information Officer and the Information Commissioners. The Bill allows for the removal of the five-year tenure and allows the central and state governments to decide the tenure of office for the Chief Information Commissioner and Information Commissioners at the central and state levels respectively. This lack of security of tenure is restrictive of the powers of the Central and State Information Commission(s). It also restricts their autonomy and makes them dependent on the reigning government and in turn to the ruling political party at the central and state legislatures. This is confining their capacity to function as an autonomous and independent body. This uncertainty of tenure will decrease the efficiency of the body as a whole since the stipulated tenure is subject to change at the whim of the ruling government.
Under the new amendment, the salaries of the Chief Information Commissioner and the Information Commissioner(s) will also be reduced. Under Section 13(5) of the Right to Information Act of 2005, the Chief Information Commissioner had to be paid the same salaries as that of the Chief Election Commissioner and the Information Commissioner had to be paid the same salary as that of an Election Commissioner. The salary of the Information Commissioner which was on par with the Election Commissioner was the same as that of a Supreme Court Judge. This reduction in salaries and allowances reduces the incentive for the body as a whole and reduces the status of the Information Commissioner and the Chief Information Commissioner. The salaries and allowances which were up until now decided by law, are subject to government and bureaucratic decision making, threatening institutional autonomy.
The third change in the Right to Information Act brought about by the Right to Information Amendment Bill of 2019 would be that in the original Act under Section 13, if the Chief Information Commissioner or the Information Commissioner was receiving a pension at the time of their appointment, the amount of the pension would be deducted from their salaries or allowances. However, the amendment seeks to do away with this provision.
These amendments make the Information Commissions weaker and take away their autonomy. The security of tenure, salaries and allowances and pensions that were guaranteed to such bodies under the law has now been taken away. This gives more power to the ruling government. The smooth functioning of any statutory body like the Information Commissions requires that they be free from external pressures of the government. This threatens the Right to Information Act passed by the Parliament in 2005 wherein the citizens of the country have the right to request information from a public office and the public office must reply within 30 days of that request. This request is processed by the central and state information commissions which were set up in 2005 for this purpose. If the personnel working in the institution are not guaranteed their tenure by law, they can be removed as per the fancy of the government. This takes away the purpose of creating such a body that would bridge the gap between the government and the citizens. This also takes away from the stability of such institutions. If the tenure is not fixed, frequent changes in administration will disrupt the smooth functioning and reduce the efficiency of the organization as a whole.
The Right to Information Act of 2005 was anointed as a progressive legislation. It enabled the citizens to have access to the work that bureaucrats and other public officials carried out. This was a way to ensure transparency in government work as citizens could assess the performance of the government themselves. But due to the changes made by the Amendment Bill, this transparency is threatened. For the smooth functioning of any democracy, there must be checks and balances within the governance system. If the mechanism for ensuring such an equilibrium is dislodged and authority is stripped away from statutory bodies that hold governments responsible, the democracy cannot thrive or function to the best of its capacity. Hence it is imperative that the legislative bodies make decisions as per national interest and not political gain.