Seven former commissioners of the Central Information Commission on Wednesday condemned the government’s move to amend the Right to Information Act.
In a press release, the retired officials – former chief information commissioners Wajahat Habibullah and Deepak Sandhu, and information commissioners Shailesh Gandhi, Sridhar Acharyulu, MM Ansari, Yashovardhan Azad and Annapurna Dixit – said the amendments were a direct attack on the powers of information commissions and people’s right to know. They urged the government to withdraw the amendment bill from Parliament.
The Right to Information (Amendment) Bill, 2019, seeks to give the government powers to fix salaries, tenures and other terms and conditions of employment of information commissioners. The Centre has said it is fully committed to transparency and autonomy of the institution. On Tuesday, United Progressive Alliance Chairperson Sonia Gandhi said the RTI Act was on the “brink of extinction” after the amendments were passed in the Lok Sabha. Social activist Anna Hazare also opposed the amendments, saying they will lead to dictatorship.
Shailesh Gandhi said the government had provided no reason for amending the law. He dismissed its claim that the RTI Act had been drafted hurriedly in 2005, recalling that it was referred to a standing committee that included members of the Bharatiya Janata Party, including current President of India Ram Nath Kovind.
Deepak Sandhu pointed out that the RTI Act was the result of a social movement that is still alive. She said the government should have held consultations before passing the bill. The proposed legislation should be referred to a select committee for public consideration, Sandhu added.
According to Yashovardhan Azad, the RTI Act has been functioning for the last 14 years without any problem regarding the tenure and status of information commissioners. He claimed the amendment bill was a clear attempt by the government to control the tenure and salary of information commissioners. Azad said the autonomy of information commissioners must be protected as the government is the respondent in most cases decided by the commission.
MM Ansari alleged that after undermining autonomous institutions like the Central Bureau of Information and the Election Commission, the Centre wanted to do the same to the Central Information Commission. He pointed out that the government had discontinued the Janane ka Haq show on the RTI Act broadcast on DD news. The failure to appoint information commissioners in a timely manner was causing pendency of cases, Ansari added.
Urging the government to withdraw the bil, Annapurna Dixit said she was opposed to the amendments and they could only be described as a discrimination against the RTI Act. She pointed out there were other bodies such as the Central Vigilance Commission that are also statutory but whose salaries and status are at par with constitutional bodies.
Sridhar Acharyulu said the RTI Amendment Bill was an attack on the constitutional right to freedom of speech. The Supreme Court has repeatedly said right to information is a fundamental right, he added. The former information commissioner said the government’s reasons for amending the Act were “illogical logic”. It was not clear whether the status of information commissioners would be maintained after these amendments, he added. Acharyulu said it was crucial to enable commissioners to give directions to the cabinet secretary or principal secretary.
Wajahat Habibullah said the amendment was completely unnecessary. He said if the law had to be amended the commission should have been made a constitutional body. The amendments would make information commissioners beholden to the Centre, he added.
Criticising the law, National Campaign for Peoples’ Right to Information Co-convener Anjali Bhardwaj said the Centre had consistently attempted to undermine the autonomy of information commissioners. The government has not appointed a single commissioner since 2014 without judicial intervention, she added. Bhardwaj said protests were being held around the country to oppose the bill.