Disempowering RTI’s nerve center

Raja Muzaffar Bhat
BJP lead National Democratic Alliance (NDA) Government has finally succeeded in amending the Right to Information Act 2005 (RTI) in such a way that the Nerve Center of RTI has been disempowered and enslaved. When I say nerve center I mean the Information Commissions at national and State level both (except J&K). On July 25th2019 , the Right to Information (Amendment) Bill was passed in the Rajya Sabha with opposition parties like BijuJanata Dal (BJD) and Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS) supporting this amendment. The bill had been already cleared by Loksabha amid huge opposition from Congress and its allies like Trinamool Congress, DMK, BSP, NCP , NC and others.
Background
The amendment in Right to Information Act 2005 is actually aimed at controlling the work of Central Information Commission (CIC) and State Information Commissions (SICs). This is a direct attack on the autonomy of these commissions which acts as an qausi judicialauthority for implementation of Right to Information Act (RTI). Information Commissions have been given enormous powers under the RTI law and that is the reason Indian RTI law is considered to be the best access to information law in the world. This law was enacted in 2005 after several years of deliberations, roundtables and activism. A nation-wide National Campaign for Peoples Right to Information (NCPRI) began way back in 1996 under the leadership of Aruna Roy a noted activist to bring this law in India. The campaign has its roots in the work and experience of Rajasthan based Mazdoor Kisaan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS) headed by Ms Roy. NCPRI which consists of more than 100 social movements and activist groups was set up in 1996 and the first draft of Right to Information Act (RTI) in India was put forward by the same group along with the Press Council of India (PCI). The draft bill was prepared after studying several progressive RTI laws of the world and that is why Indian RTI Act is considered to be the best in the world. After coming to power in 2004, Congress lead UPA acceptedNCPRI’s draft bill and finally RTI law was passed in 2005. The law is not applicable in J&K in view of article 370. In 2009 Omar Abdullah lead Government passed J&K RTI Act 2009 which in some ways is considered to be better than RTI Act 2005. In-fact National Conference Government at the behest of the then Chief Secretary also tried to disempower State information Commission (SIC) by repealing J&K RTI Rules 2010 in August 2012.
Amendments in RTI Act 2005
The recent amendments in RTI Act 2005 are aimed at diluting the statutorily fixed tenure , rank / status and remuneration of Information Commissioners. This includes Information Commissioners of Central and State Information Commissions both. RTI Act 2005 is applicable to all Central Government organizations plus all the states of India except Jammu & Kashmir. The J&K state is governed by its own RTI Law known as Jammu & Kashmir Right to Information Act 2009 (JK RTI Act 2009). Under RTI Act 2005 Chief Information Commissioner and Information Commissioners of Central and State Information Commissions have a fixed term of five years or max upper age limit of 65 years. The new amendment is aimed at changing this fixed tenure by incorporating term “for such term as may be prescribed by the Central Government”. Amendment also proposes that rank and salary of Information Commissioners would be decided by the Government.
Section 13 (2) of RTI Act 2005 reads :
“Every Information Commissioner shall hold office for a term of five years from the date on which he enters upon his office or till he attains the age of sixty-five years, whichever is earlier, and shall not be eligible for reappointment as such Information Commissioner ”
Section 13 (5) a and b of RTI Act 2005 says that the salaries and allowances of the Central Chief Information Commissioner shall be the same as that of the Chief Election Commissioner of India and rank and salary of Central Information Commissioner shall be the same as that of an Election Commissioner. Similarly section 16 (5) a and b says that State Chief Information Commissioner’s status and rank is equivalent to Election Commissioner of India and that of State Information Commissioner rank and status is at par with State Chief Secretary.
Government has removed these legal provisions through the recent amendment and now it is upto the Government to decide about the rank , status , salary and tenure of Information Commissioners. Now in future it can be assumed that rank and status plus salaries of Information Commissioners can be brought down.
No consultation
The amendments in the RTI Act 2005 have been undertakenarbitrarily as no pre legislative consultation was held with any stake holders. Even the draft amendment bill was also not made public. This clearly indicates that Government wants to disempower Information Commissions. When an information seeker is denied information by a Public Information Officer (PIO) or is provided incomplete information, he or she files 1st appeal before a senior officer of the same public authority known as First Appellate Authority (FAA). When information seeker is not satisfied by the decision of the First Appellate Authority (FAA) , appellant moves to State or Central Information Commission as the case may be by filing a 2nd appeal. These commissions have power to take action against the Public Information Officer (PIO) if found guilty of withholding information wilfully. The action includes penalty ranges between Rs 250 to Rs 25000 which is to be deducted from the salary of the PIO. Because of high stature of Information Commissioners, the Government officers were always fearful of them. By downgrading their rank, status and stature, Government actually wants to make these Commissions redundant which is actually snatching a democratic right from people especially those belonging to disadvantaged communities. It is a known fact that information under RTI is not fully revealed by Govt officers (PIOs) and only after moving to Information Commissions people get justice and it is because of these commissions that lot of information has come to public domain which has exposed many scams in past like 2G scam , coalgate scam, commonwealth games scam etc.
NC , PDPs role
I would ask National Conference and PDP both not to feel aggrieved on RTI amendment because both these parties didn’t do enough to strengthen the RTI institution in J&K. We do appreciate Omar Abdullah for enacting JK RTI Act 2009 , but after 2 years he repealed 2010 rules on the advise of his Chief Secretary Mr Ram Madhavin August 2012 thus snatching prosecuting powers of State Information Commission (SIC). MrMadhav misguided Government when he was summoned by the then State Chief Information Commissioner G R Sufi for non-implementation of some important provisions of JK RTI Act 2009 (section 4). That summon hurt the ego of Mr Madhav who after some time proposed changes in JK RTI Rules 2010 which NC Govt agreed upon without consulting anyone.
Pertinently SIC in addition of penalizing a Govt officer could prosecute him in case a public authority didn’t comply with SIC’s orders. The 2012 Rules deleted the said prosecution provision. Moreover, SIC used to be consulted before transfer and posting of its staff , but 2012 rules snatched that provision as well and from last 7 years more than 6 Secretaries and 5 Registrars of State Information Commission have beenprematurely transferred without even consultingthe commission. PDP Govt on the other hand failed to undertake training of Govt officers and general masses between 2015 to 2018 as mandated under section 23 of JK RTI Act 2009. From 2011 to 2014 more than 2500 officers were trained on implementing RTI Act in J&K but this came down to less than one hundred (100) in PDPs tenure. We were then forced to file a PIL in JK High Court to ensure implementation of RTI law in J&K. The HC direction is still not respected by Government. So if non BJP non NDA political parties are wailing over RTI amendment this is all a political stunt as they have themselves tried their best to defeat the process of this law on various occasions.
Conclusion
Though these amendments won’t apply to Jammu & Kashmir RTI Act 2009, but JK RTI Movement being a responsible RTI campaigner group feels that amendments go against the autonomous character of Central and State Information Commissions. Congress leader Shashi Tharoor has rightly called this amendment bill as RTI elimination bill.
(The author is Founder & Chairman of J&K RTI Movement)
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