After knowing for days that the government was going to attempt amending the Right to Information Act in the upcoming Monsoon Session of Parliament, the exact details of the changes were circulated among MPs on Tuesday, prompting concern from activists. If passed, the amendments would give the Centre the power to alter “salaries, allowances and other terms and conditions” of both central and state information commissioners. RTI activists contend that this would weaken the act by giving the Centre more powers over information commissioners.
The Right to Information Act 2005, which aims to increase transparency about the government and increase accountability, mandates a timely response to citizen requests for official information.
According to a bulletin uploaded on the Lok Sabha website on Tuesday, item 14 of the legislative schedule seeks to “amend the Right to Information Act, 2013”.
According to Anjali Bhardwaj of the National Campaign for Peoples’ Right to Information, this is the second time that the Act will be tabled for amendment in Parliament. “The first time was under the [Congress-led] UPA [United Progressive Alliace] government in 2013 when they wanted to remove political parties from the Act,” she said.
The draft of the amendment Bill states, “The salaries, allowances and other terms and conditions of the Chief Information Commissioner and the Information Commissioners and the State Chief Information Commissioner and the State Information Commissioners shall be such as may be prescribed by the Central Government.”
The amendments also propose to allow the Centre powers to determine the tenure of central and state commissioners.
As per current rules, salaries of the information commissioners are fixed in the law itself, explained Venkatesh Nayak, programme coordinator, Access to Information Programme, Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative. The chief information commissioner gets a salary equivalent of what the chief election commissioner gets. Other information commissioners get salaries equal to the election commissioners. The state chief election commissioner gets a salary equal to the election commissioner. The state information commissioner gets a salary equal to the chief secretary of the state government.
The changes will give the government discretion over the salaries as well as the tenures of the information commissioners, both at the Centre and in the states.
Bhardwaj called this a serious attack on the information commission and said that the changes could influence the decision made by the commissioners. “One important way to ensure authority is security of tenure,” she said. “[If the amendments are passed] the central government will decide the tenure and fix salaries. This is to make sure that the chief information commission and state information commission don’t pass any inconvenient orders to the government.” She claimed there is “no rationale” for these proposed amendments.
Nikhil Dey of the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan, the group that played an important role in campaigning for the RTI Act, said there had been “zero public consultation” on the changes in the law. “We don’t know what they will do [with the new powers]. This is clearly a way to undermine the authority. It is a blatant way to weaken the Right to Information Act.”
Under the Pre-Legislative Consultation Policy of 2014, it is mandatory to disclose drafts of legislation in the public domain, according to Venkatesh Nayak. “The irony is that they are amending an act of public information in secrecy,” he said.
Nayak also said that there is a question of federalism that comes up in the amendments. “The central government had no control over state information commissions. Now, they can select members with varied salaries. It is a blow on cooperative federalism.”
A further consequence of the amendments could be that the government, by altering the pay structure for information commissioners, also ends up affecting their work. “In a bureaucracy, in addition to the grade, the pay bracket also matters,” Nayak said. “If the government reduces the pay bracket of the information commissioners, then the press information officers will not take orders from them. The Centre only wants to allocate powers to itself.”
Shailesh Gandhi, RTI activist and former central information commissioner, said that the law had prescribed that the chief information commissioner is equal to the election commissioner, who is also equal to the Supreme Court judges. He added that a term of five years has been prescribed for the chief and state information commissioners and the retirement age is 65 years.
“For states as well as the Centre, it is an attempt to downgrade the position [of commissioners],” said Gandhi. He added that this amendment could “affect the efficacy” of the act. Gandhi said that the rationale for the proposed amendments is still unclear and that there was no pressing need to make this change.
“This is a strong signal that they [the government] do not care for the pre-legislative consultation,” he contended. “It is also an attempt to show the chief information commission that whoever opposes us, we put you in place.”