7 PM | The tremor of unwelcome amendments | 22nd July, 2019

Context: The Right to Information (Amendment) Bill, 2019.

More in news: The Right to Information (Amendment) Bill, 2019 was introduced in Lok Sabha on July 19, 2019. It seeks to amend the Right to Information Act, 2005.

What is Right to Information Act, 2005 (RTI)?

Under the RTI Act, 2005, Public Authorities are required to make disclosures on various aspects of their structure and functioning mentioned as follow:

  1. disclosure on their organization, functions, and structure
  2. powers and duties of its officers and employees
  3. Financial information. 

Why RTI?

  • To empower the citizens to seek information as a matter of right
  • To maintain transparency
  • To check the large-scale corruption caused in the system
  • To demand greater accountability on the part of the public authorities, Central Information Commission and also State Information Commission
  • To escalate the awareness of the citizens regarding the governmental functions

Who is included in the ambit of ‘Public Authorities’?

  • ‘Public Authorities’ include bodies of self-government established under the Constitution, or under any law or government notification. These include Ministries, public sector undertakings, and regulators. 
  • It also includes any entities owned, controlled or substantially financed and non-government organizations substantially financed directly or indirectly by funds provided by the government. 

How is the right to information enforced under the Act?

The Act has established a three tier structure for enforcing the right to information guaranteed under the Act:

  • Public Authorities designate some of their officers as Public Information Officers.  The first request for information goes to Central/State Assistant Public Information Officer and Central/State Public Information Officer, designated by the Public Authorities. These Officers are required to provide information to an RTI applicant within 30 days of the request.
  • Appeals from their decisions go to an Appellate Authority. 
  • Appeals against the order of the Appellate Authority go to the State Information Commission or the Central Information Commission.  These Information Commissions consists of a Chief Information Commissioner, and up to 10 Information Commissioners.  

Advantages of RTI:

  • Transparency: It ensures the right of the citizens to acquire as much information they want regarding the governmental activities, rules and regulations, etc. This creates a room for better communication between the public authorities and the citizens.
  • Citizen-centric approach: Due to the enforcement of this Act, the authorities are sure to let out information as asked for by the citizens and this made the authorities to think more before taking any random step.
  • Availability of Information: RTI created an easy form of letting out information to the person concerned thus resulting in accessibility of information relating to governmental activity to the person who seeks for such information. Moreover, the application for information is to be responded by the public servants within 30 days of application.
  • Reduction in Corruption: As all the information is accessible, the graph to that of corruption has taken a down-curve.
  • Government-public relation: The Act also ensures the strengthening of government-public relation due to the increase in communication.
  • A person can obtain information in any manner, even in disks, floppies, tapes, cassettes, or by any other means.

Disadvantages:

  • Many departments of Government have appointed more than necessary public information officers (PIOs), which results in difficulty to gain information.
  • Difficulty to people’s access to the PIOs. Without security pass people are not allowed to meet the PIOs and at times they are made to wait for hours for security passes.
  • Due to overburdened applications for information, sometimes, wrong information is given out. Sometimes, the authorities fail to respond to the applications even at the expiry of 30 days within which information was supposed to be communicated.

What does the Right to Information (Amendment) Bill, 2019 propose?

The Bill changes the terms and conditions of service of the CIC and Information Commissioners at the centre and in states. 

The table below gives the comparison of the provisions of the Right to Information Act, 2005 and the Right to Information (Amendment) Bill, 2019.

Argument by government for proposed changes:

The functions being carried out by the Election Commission of India and the Central and State Information Commissions are totally different. Moreover, it points out that “The Election Commission is a constitutional body established by clause (1) of Article 324 of the Constitution. On the other hand, the Central Information Commission and State Information Commissions are statutory bodies established under the provisions of RTI Act, 2005.”

Therefore, the Centre has reasoned that “the mandate of the Election Commission of India and the Central and State Information Commissions are different. Hence, their status and service conditions need to be rationalised accordingly.”

In light of this difference, the Centre has proposed to amend the RTI Act 2005 “so as to provide that the term of office of, and the salaries, allowances and other terms and conditions of service of, the Chief Information Commissioner and Information Commissioners and the State Chief Information Commissioner and the State Information Commissioners, shall be such as may be prescribed by the Central Government.”

Criticism to the proposed changes:

  • Independence: The amendments would empower the Centre to make rules to decide the tenure, salary, allowances and other terms of service of information commissioners of the Central and also State Information Commissions. This will fundamentally weaken the institution of the information commissions as it will adversely impact the ability of commissioners to function in an independent manner.
  • Effects on federalism: By diminishing the status of the CIC, IC and State CIC from that of a Supreme Court judge would reduce their ability to issue directives to senior government functionaries. The change would “kill the RTI Act” and is an “affront to federalism, good governance and ultimately, democracy”. It would also render freedom of speech meaningless.
  • Circulating the Bill without any public consultation: National Campaign for People’s Right to Information (NCPRI) said the move creates grave concerns about secrecy. The government has brought about the Bill in complete secrecy and there have been no public consultations on the Bill, which will impact the fundamental right to information of the citizens of the country.

Way Forward:

The RTI Act is regarded as one of the most successful laws of independent India. It has given ordinary citizens the confidence and the right to ask questions of government authorities. According to estimates, nearly 60lakh applications are being filed every year. It is used by citizens as well as the media. The law is seen as having acted as a deterrent for government servants against taking arbitrary decisions. Government should bring the amendment after proper consultation with civil society and other stakeholders. It should towards strengthening RTI rather than weaken it from within for a sustainable and growing democracy.

Source: https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/the-tremor-of-unwelcome-amendments/article28628537.ece

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