The amendments to the Right to Information Act proposed by the government will compromise autonomy of the transparency panel by making it subordinate to the executive, seven former central information commissioners said on Wednesday, 24 July.
The seven former CICs termed the amendment as a direct attack on autonomy of information commissions and peoples’ fundamental right to know.
The Right to Information (Amendment) Bill, 2019 proposes to give the Centre the powers to set the salaries and service conditions of information commissioners at the central and state levels.
In a press release, former CICs Mr Wajahat Habibullah, Ms Deepak Sandhu and former information commissioners Mr Shailesh Gandhi, Prof Sridhar Acharyulu, Mr MM Ansari, Mr Yashovardhan Azad and Ms Annapurna Dixit urged the government to withdraw the regressive amendments to the landmark transparency judgment.
Here’s what each of them said:
SHAILESH GANDHI - FORMER INFORMATION COMMISSIONER
Shailesh Gandhi countered the government’s claim that the RTI Act was drafted hurriedly leading to anomalies in it.
The RTI Act, before being passed in 2005 was referred to a Standing Committee which examined all the provisions at length and recommended that in order to ensure autonomy of information commissions, the commissioners should be given a status equivalent to election commissioners (which in turn are equivalent to Supreme Court judges).
Gandhi pointed out that several MPs of the BJP party had been a member of the standing committee and in fact the current President of India – Ram Nath Kovind was also a member. Gandhi rejected the other justification put forth by the government that because decisions of information commissioners are challenged in high courts, therefore their status being equivalent to Supreme Court judges was causing legal hinderances. He said that
“Decisions of all authorities including those of the President and Prime Minister are challenged before high courts and that their status does not prevent or debar such challenges. The government is not being honest about why it is bringing these amendments.”Shailesh Gandhi, former information commissioner
DEEPAK SANDHI - FORMER CHIEF INFORMATION COMMISSIONER
Deepak Sandhu said that the RTI Act came through a social movement and it is great to see that the movement is still alive to protect the Act. She underlined the failure of the government to hold any pre-legislative consultation on the RTI Amendment Bill. The commissioners said that the bill should be referred to a Select Committee to enable public consultation.
She highlighted that peoples’ right to information emanates from the constitutional right to freedom of speech and expression and information commissions, being the final adjudicatory body under the Act are tasked with protecting a fundamental right and therefore, their autonomy and independence must be protected.
YASHOVARDHAN AZAD - FORMER INFORMATION COMMISSIONER
Yashovardhan Azad said that the amendment bill was a clear attempt by the government to control the tenure and salary of information commissioners and the government seeking these powers would most probably lead to a downgrade. He said
“If the amendments pass and the government has powers to fix salary and tenure of commissioners through rules, a situation could arise where different commissioners will have different tenures and salaries.”Yashovardhan Azad, former information commissioner
He underlined that since most of the RTI applications are filed by the common citizens and the marginalised sections of society. In most cases decided by the commission, the respondent is the government and therefore, in order to ensure that commissions can function independently, he said their autonomy must be protected. He said that instead of strengthening the RTI Act, the government was amending the law. He urged that like the Prime Minister was inviting suggestions for his show, he should ask for suggestions of people on the RTI Amendment Bill.
MM ANSARI - FORMER INFORMATION COMMISSIONER
MM Ansari highlighted how there are questions over attempts to undermine independent bodies like the CBI, the Election Commission and said that it seems like now it is the turn of information commissions. He said the genesis of the RTI comes from Supreme Court rulings on how right to information is a pre-condition for informed voting and therefore, parity between information and election commissioners is not an anomaly. Questioning claims of the government’s commitment to the RTI Act and transparency, he highlighted that an assessment was undertaken on compliance with provisions of proactive disclosures by public authorities. Only one-third of the public authorities responded to the survey sent to them and the analysis showed dismal implementation of section 4 of the Act. The failure to appoint information commissioners in a timely manner was leading to pendency increasing.
ANNAPURNA DIXIT - FORMER INFORMATION COMMISSIONER
Annapurna Dixit said she was opposed to the amendments and the attempted dilution could only be described as discrimination against the RTI Act.
She cited that there are other bodies like the CVC, which are also statutory but whose salaries and status are at par with Constitutional bodies (in this case the UPSC members) – even though CVC is not the final appellate body for a fundamental right and only has recommendatory powers, unlike the information commissions.
SRIDHAR ACHARYULU - FORMER CHIEF INFORMATION COMMISSIONER
Sridhar Acharyulu said that the RTI Amendment Bill was not just an attack on the RTI Act but also on the Constitutional right to freedom of speech as the RTI emanates from there. Terming the reasons given by the government for the amendment bill as “illogical logic”, he said commissions could survive only because their tenure and salary were protected by law. He further highlighted that in the amendments the government was not specifying what status commissioners would be given.
Underlining the importance of a high status he said that was crucial to enable commissioners to give directions to even the cabinet secretary or principal secretary.
He further pointed out that as the amendments will empower the central government to fix salaries of even state information commissioners, there were serious questions of federalism as salaries of state commissioners come from the funds of the state and whether states would allow the centre to decide allocation.
WAJAHAT HABIBULLAH - FORMER CHIEF INFORMATION COMMISSIONER
Wajahat Habibullah said that there was no reason for this amendment- salary and tenure has not been a point of problem or contention. He said though the Minister gave an eloquent reply in Parliament during the passage of the Amendment Bill in Lok Sabha, he was weak on facts.
“If at all any amendment was to be brought it should be to make the information commission a constitutional body.”Wajahat Habibullah, former Information Commissioner
Habibullah said that the government deciding salaries and tenures would beholden commissioners to the government and create apprehensions in their minds.
ANJALI BHARADWAJ - FORMER INFORMATION COMMISSIONER
Anjali Bhardwaj, co-convenor of the National Campaign for Peoples’ Right to Information said that there have been consistent efforts to undermine the institution of information commissions.
Since 2014, the government has not appointed a single commissioners, unless the courts intervened.
She said that protests are being held across the country to oppose the amendments, which if passed would fundamentally dilute peoples’ right to know.