RTI Amendment Bill: Here’s all you need to know about the ongoing debate

RTI activists have come under attack across states and several “false cases” have been filed to intimidate them. Representative picture. Photo: iStock

The NDA government’s move to pass a bill amending the Right To Information (RTI) Act on Monday (July 23) has triggered uproar from activists, former Chief Information Commissioners (CICs) and the Opposition.

While many amendments have been brought in over the years to fill in the gaps and ease the process of filing an RTI, the recent amendment is seen as an attempt to undermine the law and make the transparency panel a “toothless tiger.”

The Right to Information (Amendment) Bill, 2019, amends Sections 13 and 16 of the RTI Act that deals with the stature of Chief Information Commissioner and Information Commissioners, their salaries and service conditions. The recent amendment allows the Central government to set the salaries, allowances and other terms of service of the Chief Information Commissioner and the Information Commissioners.

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Also read: RTI Amendment Bill 2019 is a direct attack on India’s federalism 

Earlier, the term of the central Chief Information Commissioner and Information Commissioners was set at five years (or until the age of 65, whichever is earlier). And the salaries, allowances and other terms of services of the CIC was the same as that of the Chief Election Commissioner and those of an Information Commissioner was same as that of an Election Commissioner.

While tabling the Bill in Parliament, Minister of State in the Prime Minister’s Office Jitendra Singh said that the amendment would lead to ease of delivery of RTI Act. Transparency activists, however, have slammed the move.

“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,”  former CIC Sridhar Acharyulu 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, hence the government is making the amendments to reduce the stature.

Social activist Aruna Roy, who fought a long battle to bring in the transparency law in 2005, said at a press conference that it was a regressive move aimed at undermining the independence of information commissions. Acharyulu was quoted as saying by PTI that the Right to Information (Amendment) Bill, 2019 would be a “stab in the back” for the CIC and a “deathblow” to the act.

The fact that amendments to the RTI law were introduced in complete secrecy and in violation of the Pre-Legislative Consultation Policy remains a matter of grave concern, Roy added. The policy mandates public disclosure and consultation on draft legislation, which was not done in the case of the RTI Bill.

The National Campaign for People’s Right to Information (NCPRI) rejected the amendments calling them ‘regressive,’ while UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi alleged that the RTI Act now stands on the “brink of extinction”.

Over the course of nearly 14 years, the Right To Information (RTI) Act has been used by crores of people to seek information from the government official and make a difference.

Also read: RTI on brink of extinction, Central govt wants to subvert Act: Sonia Gandhi

In 2011, an 18-year-old student Bhadresh Wamja from Saldi Village in Mehsana, Gujarat, used Right To Information (RTI) Act to nail the ration shop which was not distributing food grains to ration card holders. His persistence led to mandatory stock disclosure by fair price shops in the state. In 2008, Bilaspur-based Buddhi Sagar Soni and Mahendra Dube used the same law to reveal that the misuse of BPL ration cards.

A year later in Solan, Himachal Pradesh, Advocate Ashwani Sharma used the RTI Act to help an octogenarian farmer get his subsidy for water tank under the Central government’s Pandit Deendayal Kisan Bagwan Samridhi Yojana.

A 2016 study by Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI) revealed that 4,800 RTIs were filed every day to access information from the government across India between 2005 and 2015. In the first decade, 1.75 crore RTIs were filed, of which 27.2 per cent (47.66 lakh) of the total RTIs were addressed to the different ministries and departments under the Centre.

In the following years, RTI has gained more traction as 2017-18 reported a record 12.3 lakh RTI applications with 96 per cent of them being responded to by government offices, showed the Central Information Commission data. Thus, there is a huge uproar from people who support transparency in governance.

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