Politicians, Ex-Commissioner, Activists Slam RTI Amendment Bill
The Opposition slammed the government in Lok Sabha over the provisions of the Bill to amend the RTI Act.
The Lok Sabha on Monday, 22 July passed the Bill amending the Right to Information Act, amid opposition from politicians, activists and former Chief Information Commissioners.
The Right to Information (Amendment) Bill, 2019, takes away the stature of information commissioners from the equivalent of election commissioners. It also seeks to give the government the power to fix salaries, tenures and other terms and conditions of the employment of information commissioners.
‘Not Amendment but Elimination Bill’: Tharoor
The Opposition, on Monday, slammed the government in Lok Sabha over the provisions of the Bill to amend the Right to Information Act, alleging it has been brought up to undermine the law and make the transparency panel a “toothless tiger” like the National Human Rights Commission.
Leading the Opposition charge during the debate on the Bill, Congress leader Shashi Tharoor said that under the proposed changes, the government can hire and fire independent information commissioners.
“It is not an Amendment Bill but elimination Bill,” he said.
The Act is a monumental achievement for the country's democracy and it challenges the vested interests of the government, the former Union minister said.
He questioned why the Bill was brought “without any public consultation”.
“The Right to Information (Amendment) Bill, 2019 is a deliberate attempt to undermine the Act and make it toothless tiger like National Human Rights Commission (NHRC),” Tharoor alleged.
Congress' Rajya Sabha MP Rajeev Gowda said that his party would oppose the proposed amendments and accused the Modi government of trying to weaken anti-corruption laws.
“The RTI Act was brought under the UPA tenure and it was given an important place. The Act had given people the right to expose corruption in government. The government is trying to weaken anti-corruption laws by using ‘Chanakya neeti’,” he said.
Gowda said that if the government gets the freedom to fix the tenure of RTI commissioners, the power of the former will stand weakened.
When Jitendra Singh, the Minister of State for Personnel, sought the consideration and the passage of the Bill, several members of the Opposition, including some from the BSP and the TMC, called for a division opposing it, which was defeated 218 by 79 votes.
After this, the leader of the principal opposition party, Congress, Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury, sought a clarification which was disallowed by the Speaker.
Unhappy with this, members of opposition parties staged a walk-out.
Information Commissioner Will Be Like ‘House Maid’: A Raja
Speaking at an event held to oppose the Right to Information (Amendment) Bill, 2019, Rajya Sabha MP Manoj Jha said that such a move will kill the spirit of RTI.
“This is an attack on the federal structure. The central government has the entire power and most of the information (under RTI) is sought from the government. You are colouring the entire process. It is like killing the spirit of RTI,” he said.
DMK’s A Raja said that under the proposed amendments, the Information Commissioner is going to be a “house maid” (of the government).
Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal also opposed the Centre's move to amend the RTI Act, alleging that it will end the independence of the Centre and the state’s information commissions.
Kejriwal, who had actively worked for the implementation of the Right to Information Act before coming into politics, called the decision to amend the RTI Act a “bad move”.
Bill Proposing Changes Is “Regressive”: Aruna Roy
Transparency activists also slammed the government's move to amend the Act, which would take away statutory parity of Information Commissioners with Election Commissioners in terms of tenure and service conditions.
The Bill which proposes changes in the RTI Act is regressive and aimed at undermining the independence of information commissions, social activist Aruna Roy said.
It is a matter of grave concern that the amendments to the RTI law were introduced in complete secrecy and in flagrant violation of the Pre-Legislative Consultation Policy of the Central government, which mandates public disclosure and consultation on draft legislations, Roy told reporters at a press conference on Monday in Jaipur.
She said, owing to “the undemocratic way of its introduction”, the contents of the draft amendments were not known by MPs, citizens and the media till the Bill was circulated to members of the Lok Sabha on the eve of its introduction.
The RTI Amendment Bill, 2019, seeks to amend the RTI Act in order to empower the Central government unilaterally decide the tenure, salary, allowances and other terms of service of Information Commissioners at the Centre and in states, she added.
RTI Campaign Rajasthan, an organisation which pushed for the enactment of the RTI Act in the country, wholly rejects the amendments introduced by the NDA government, and demands that they be withdrawn with immediate effect, Roy said.
The NCPRI, in a press release, had said that the amendments dilute the RTI legislation and demanded that discussions be brought under an appropriate Parliamentary Standing Committee without further delay, ThePrint reported. The body also warned that if the government went ahead with the amendments, it would carry out a nationwide protest.
‘Serious Blow to Sunshine Law’: Activist Anjali Bhardwaj
Another activist, Anjali Bhardwaj, said that it was a serious blow to the law.
“RTI amendment Bill passed by Lok Sabha. Many factually incorrect statements made by minister. Amendments are to undermine independent institution of information commissions. Must be referred to Rajya Sabha select committee,” she tweeted.
Amrita Johri, a member of the National Campaign for Peoples’ Right to Information (NCPRI), said the manner in which the Bill was passed is extremely disappointing.
She said that the Bill was neither disclosed nor any public consultation was held, and added that it was a surreptitious way of amending the transparency law.
“Though the opposition tried to raise crucial issues, the minister did not allow the opposition to put forth their points. The Bill should have been referred to a standing committee rather than undermining the democracy in this manner,” Johri said.
Activist and lawyer Prashant Bhushan alleged that the government was trying to undermine the Act because it wants to hide any information which might expose its misdeeds.
“The government was refusing to disclose information on who travels with the prime minister on his foreign travels, on Rafale scam, on sources of BJP's funds and also which corporates were being awarded contracts,” he said at an event.
Ex-CIC Terms It Death Blow to Law
Terming a proposed amendment in the RTI Act a “stab in the back” of the CIC and a “deathblow” to the law, former Central Information Commissioner Sridhar Acharyulu has urged members of the Parliament to reject the changes.
The former Information Commissioner, who is known for his pro-transparency orders in several high-profile cases, said the proposed changes “seriously undermine” the autonomy of information commissions.
Acharyulu, a noted law professor, said the “wrongful measure” will make the commissioners spineless and powerless to issue any disclosure orders and will make them fail to implement the objectives of the Right to Information Act.
“If the MPs approve this bill, ICs will become annexure or appendages of senior babus in state and central governments. I appeal to both Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha MPs to oppose it and see that it is rejected,” he said in a letter to parliamentarians.
He said the responsibility lies more with the members of Rajya Sabha (counsel of states).
“...It reduces the stature of commissioners, which is now equivalent to election commissioner and judge (of the) Supreme Court,” he said.
The government wishes to amend the tenure and service conditions of the rank of information commissioner, which is statutorily at par with election commissioner, to a new system where it “shall be such as may be prescribed by the central government”.
If the Bill is passed, the guarantee for the term and stature for five years will be removed, Acharyulu said.
“This means legislative safeguard to the term of commissioner is abolished and the government of the day will be empowered to prescribe any term, stature or salary,” he said in the letter.
Acharyulu said the statements of objects in the proposed Bill clearly stated that the CIC is not equal to the CEC, and hence, the government is making the amendments to reduce the former’s stature.
The commissioner, who gave orders on the disclosure of academic records of BA pass students of 1978-batch (the year Prime Minister Narendra Modi graduated) of Delhi University, and summoned the RBI governor for not following the Supreme Court over transparency, said the Executive did not have the power to amend the salary and the tenure of information commissioners as per the 2005 Act.
“For one recruitment the government may prescribe joint secretary status and three-year term, or for other set of commissioners, the government may give four or two years by frequently changing the rules,” he said.
He said it will seriously dent the present independence of the commissioners and make them subordinate to government departments.
Wajahat Habibullah, the country's first chief information commissioner, also disapproved of the Central government's move to amend the RTI Act.
“If the people who bring information to you are scared to tell the truth, how will the information reach you? Do we have the power to go to the prime minister and present our problems? No. The only ethical way to do this is through RTI and the lawmakers have repeatedly said that we have the right to question the government,” he said.
Government Defends Amendment
However, the government said the Opposition is misguiding people as the proposed changes are only aimed at streamlining functioning, and rejected the criticism regarding the Right to Information (Amendment) Bill, 2019’s intent to weaken the Act.
Minister of State in the Prime Minister's Office Jitendra Singh said that the Opposition is “misguiding” people by saying that the government wants to weaken the Act by bringing in the bill.
“From the beginning of its first term in 2014, the Modi government has brought transparency in governance for greater public participation,” Singh said.
“I urge the opposition to support the amendment to Act, so that we can streamline the functioning of the Act and remove anomalies,” he added.
Replying to a debate about the Bill, Minister of State for Personnel Jitendra Singh said the Bill aims at institutionalisation, streamlining and ease of delivery of the Act.
Jagdambika Pal (BJP) said that the government wants to make the Act more effective.
(With inputs from PTI and ThePrint.)
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