Transparency activists have slammed the government's move to amend the Right to Information Act to take away statutory parity of Information Commissioners with Election Commissioners in terms of tenure and service conditions, saying it is an attack on the independence of the panel.
The Centre on Friday introduced the Right to Information (Amendment) Bill, 2019 in Lok Sabha.
It will allow the government to prescribe the term of office, salaries, allowances and other terms and conditions of service of Chief Information Commissioner and Information Commissioners.
In the present form, the RTI Act gives them a fixed tenure of five years or till reaching the age of 65 years, whichever is earlier, besides their salary and allowances are at par with the Election Commissioners.
"The move by the government to amend the RTI Act is very unfortunate and appears to be the result of wrong and faulty advice. It would have been advisable if this had been transparently placed in public domain for a consultation and views," former Information Commissioner Shailesh Gandhi said.
He said because of the opaque system of appointing Information Commissioners, most of them tend to follow the government's desires.
"Some Information Commissioners do show independence and give decisions which are not liked by those with power. This move appears to be downgrade them and make them caged parrots mimicking His Master's Voice," he said.
Gandhi said the ostensible reason being mentioned for wanting to downgrade the Central Information Commissioners is that they are equal to Supreme Court judges whereas their orders are subject to appeals before high courts.
"Firstly Section 23 of the RTI Act specifically bars appeals against the Information Commissioners' orders, and hence the DoPT minister's statement in Parliament is factually wrong. The challenge to the CIC orders is made under the writ jurisdiction of the courts," he said.
Introducing the Bill, Minister of State in the Department of Personnel and Training (DoPT) Jitendra Singh has argued that since its orders can be challenged (in writ jurisdiction) before high courts, the CIC cannot be equal to the Supreme Court judges.
"The orders of the President, Prime Minister, Governors and Central Election Commissioners are also challenged in writ jurisdiction before the High Courts. So will it be argued that all these positions must be downgraded," Gandhi quipped.
Another activist Venkatesh Nayak of Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative said the BJP government had attempted this amendment during last tenure but the widespread protest from citizenry and the media supported by the opposition parties was the reason for the government backtracking.
"Emboldened by the big majority that it has attained in the 17th Lok Sabha, the NDA government is back to its favourite past time -- striving to curtail the efficacy of the RTI Act," he said.
He said that in June, 2017, through the Finance Act, the central government upgraded the salaries, allowances, eligibility criteria and the manner of appointment of the
Chairpersons and Presiding Officers and Members of 19 Tribunals and Adjudicating Authorities -- all of which have been established under a specific law and whose members are not constitutional authorities.
"The central government had no problems raising the salaries of Statutory Tribunals...before upgrading the salaries of the SC and HC Judges who are constitutional authorities. So the justification that the central government is giving for amending the RTI Act, namely, that the Information Commissions being statutory authorities cannot be treated on par with constitutional authorities like the ECI does not sound convincing at all," he said.
Activist Anjali Bhardwaj dismissed the minister's claim that the bill aimed at strengthening and streamlining RTI Act.
"Nothing could be further from the truth! The amendment is aimed to ensure pliabilty of info commissioners towards central government. Need public campaign to Save the RTI Act. The bill must be sent to Standing Committee as there was no public consultation before its introduction," she said.
Commodore Lokesh Batra (Retd) said it is another attempt by the government to amend the RTI Act by taking away the autonomy of Information Commissions – amounting to killing the citizens' "right to know".
The country's first Chief Information Commissioner Wajahat Habibullah had told PTI Thursday that the status of EC was given to the organisation as it was "government's own watchdog of its own functioning".
He said it is not a question of whether CIC or SIC are constitutional body or not but they are supposed to give a "neutral and unbiased" reports on the functioning of the government and its constituents which is not possible without these powers. \
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