A bill which seeks to take away the stature of information commissioners from equivalent of election commissioners and give the Centre the power to set their salaries and service conditions was introduced in Lok Sabha on Friday amid protests by opposition parties.
Introducing the Right to Information (Amendment) Bill, 2019, Minister of State in the Prime Minister’s Office Jitendra Singh said no one can question the Modi government on its commitment to transparency. He asserted that the government works on the principle of maximum governance minimum government.
The bill, he said, aims at institutionalisation, streamlining and ease of delivery of RTI Act. He said it strengthens the overall RTI structure and described it as an enabling legislation for administration purposes.
Activists have criticised the amendments, saying it will weaken transparency panels in the country. Opposing the introduction of the bill, leader of Congress party in Lok Sabha Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury said the draft law is a threat to independence of Central Information Commissioner (CIC).
Shashi Tharoor (Cong) said this bill is actually “RTI elimination bill” removing two greater powers of institutional independence. AIMIM member Assasudin Owasi said the bill is a threat to the Constitution and Parliament.
He had sought a division on the introduction of the bill. While 224 members supported its introduction, nine opposed it. When Owaisi sought a division, members from Congress and Trinamool Congress walked out of proceedings.
Before the division was sought, Saugata Roy (TMC) demanded that the bill to be referred to the parliamentary standing committee.
He pointed out that in the 15th Lok Sabha, 71 per cent of bills were referred to committees, but in the 16th Lok Sabha, only 26 per cent bills were referred to parliamentary panels.
“But in this Lok Sabha, not a single bill has been referred,” he said. Most of the parliamentary panels are yet to be constituted.
As the exchange of words between the treasury and opposition benches continued, Jitendra Singh took a dig at the Congress, saying during their time RTI was a 10 am to 5 pm thing but now RTI can be filed anytime from anywhere.
He said the Modi government moved an extra mile for selection of CIC. Since there was no leader of opposition in 16th Lok Sabha, the government amended rules so that leader of largest opposition party (then Mallikarjun Kharge) can be included in the selection panel.
Singh claimed the law was clumsy in nature and was drafted in a haste. According to the bill, the term of offices, salaries, allowances and other terms and conditions shall be “prescribed by the Central Government.”
In the present form Section 13 (5) of the Right to Information Act provides that salaries, allowances and other terms and conditions of the service of the Chief Information Commissioner shall be the same as that of the Chief Election Commissioner while that of an Information Commissioner shall be same as that of an Election Commissioner.
The amendment states that the Chief Election Commissioner and Election Commissioners have salaries of a Supreme Court Judge which brings Chief Information Commissioner and Information Commissioners on a par with apex court judges.
“The functions being carried out by the Election Commission of India and the Central and State Information Commissions are totally different. The Election Commission of India is a Constitutional body…On the other hand Central Information Commission and State Information Commission are statutory bodies established under the Right to Information Act, 2005,” it said.
When it was circulated last year, the move had faced criticism from civil society members, activists and former Information Commissioners who had said that the move will take away independence of the Commissions, highest adjudicating bodies in the matter of the RTI Act. Finally it was not introduced in Parliament.
According to activists, the efficacy of the RTI Act, allowing any Indian to seek information from any authority on the payment of Rs 10, hinges closely on independence of the CIC and its equivalents in states — state information commissions that adjudicate the matter in case information is not furnished to applicants within parameters of the law.