“The recently passed RTI amendment is the death knell for this popular law that served the public since 2005 in unearthing so much of corruption and wrongdoing by the public officials,” said George Abraham, Vice-Chairman of the Indian Overseas Congress, USA. “The objective by the NDA government is very clear: they want to dilute and weaken the Right to Information Act of 2005. By dismantling the bill as it is, the Modi regime may be enabling the crony capitalists to engage in corruption and while being shielded from any public scrutiny. It is also consistent with their strategy of weakening Institutions and make them subservient to do their bidding,” Mr. Abraham added.
As per news reports, on 22 July, the Lok Sabha passed the RTI Amendment Bill, 2019, which removes the statutory protection of tenure, salaries, allowances, and conditions of service given to the central and state Information Commissioners, who are the final adjudicators of information requests. Instead, it says that their tenure and salaries shall be “as prescribed by the Central Government.” The changes undermine the autonomy of the commissioners tasked with implementing the law and thus weakens one of India’s most robust open government and transparency laws.
This is not the first attempt by the Modi government to weaken the RTI act. In 2008, they had circulated a bill but had to withdraw under pressure from the civil society. However, emboldened by the recent election victories, they have rushed through this amendment while rejecting the opposition demand to refer the matter to the Parliamentary Committee.
The landmark RTI Act, 2005, allows any citizen to seek information from any government authority on payment of Rs 10. If this information is not provided, the person can appeal to the public information officers (PIOs) appointed in each department. If they are still denied the information, they also have the option of appealing to independent officials who function as Information Commissioners—at the central and state government levels—who then adjudicate the claims to ensure fair implementation of the transparency law.
According to Anumeha Yadav, “allowing the central government to do so for all information commissioners is harmful for the following reasons: it undermines the autonomy of the officials whose role it is to remain independent of the government; it weakens the ability of information commissioners to pass orders to disclose information that the central government may not wish to provide; and it also damages citizens’ access to vital public information, as well as the principles of open government. By allowing the central government to take power to decide their salaries and tenures, the proposed amendments undermine the authority of state governments and the spirit of federalism, and further concentrates powers with the central government”.
Shashi Tharoor, M.P. from Kerala in summing up his speech opposing the amendment put it bluntly “It is not an RTI amendment bill but an RTI elimination Bill which violates the constitutional principles of freedom and of federalism and undermines the authority of RTI commissioners and severely dilutes the provisions of the law itself. ”
George Abraham, Vice-Chairman
Indian Overseas Congress, USA
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