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AMENDMENTS TO RTI 2019

  1.   The Right to Information Act, 2005 was enacted by repealing the Freedom of Information Act 2002. The object of legislating RTI was for giving every citizen access to information controlled by public authorities. Under the Act it was obligatory upon the authority to provide information and maintain records consistent with its operation needs. The object of the Act was to promote openness, transparency and accountability in administration. The person desirous of obtaining information shall make a request in writing or through electronic means to the concerned Public Information Officer specifying the particulars of the information sought by him and the Public Information Commissioner shall within thirty days either provide the information required on payment of prescribed fee or reject the request for the reason and grounds as set out under Section 8 and 9 of the Act. If the person was aggrieved by the order, he could exercise his right of preferring first appeal and further second appeal before the Central Information Commissioner.
  2.    The new law strengthen the freedom of press because under the Official Secrets Act the authorities usually denied the information relating to government documents. The freedom of information is basically a citizen’s right but the Freedom of Press is not different than the citizen’s right. It is the press which discloses the matters relating to public importance and strengthens democracy. RTI was considered to be a re- incarnation of the Fundamental Right guaranteed under the Constitution of India under Article 19(1) (a) which guaranteed Freedom of Speech and expression. Freedom to speak also guaranteed freedom to know.
  3.    RTI has helped millions of people to empower themselves, resolve their grievance through an Application which only costs Rs. 10/- leading to transparency, in preventing corruption in thousands of small government offices. Many of them have been beaten, killed, threatened and have lost their lives just because of their courage and determination to persist. There were segment of government officers who believed that their corrupt practices would come to light.
  4.    RTI was a globally celebrated legislation as it was meant that the function of the State (Governance) would be accountable to individual. It was passed after critical examination of the standing committee. The function included implementing constitutional right standing between the individual and state and this require independence and autonomy.
  5.    On 19th July 2019, Mr. Jitendra Singh, Minister of State for Ministry of Personnel introduced the Bill for Amendment to the RTI. On 22nd July 2019, Lok Sabha passed the Right to Information (Amendment Bill) 2019. While 218 members voted in favour of the Right to Information (Amendment Bill) 2019, 79 went against the bill. Mr. Jitendra Singh introduced the bill stating that the Information Commissioner was a statutory body and it was anomaly to equate it to a constitutional body like the Election Commissioner who has been given a constitutional right. An anomaly was drawn that the Central Information Commissioner is ranked equivalent to Supreme Court Judges if the power of the Central Information Commissioner is to be seen, however the orders of the Information Commissioner can be challenged in High Court. Therefore there is an apparent anomaly in the status of the Information Commissioner which is required to be modified and rectified, explained the Minister.
  6.    The Minister further went on to explain that the Amendment is merely an enabling legislation and Government has no ulterior motives and neither the government is interfering in the authority of the Commissioner. The amendment is not an attempt to undermine the autonomy of the Information Commissioner but to bring uniformity in the categorisation of services. The reason for amendment is that the mandate of the Election Commissioner and Information Commissioner is different and hence the service conditions have to be rationalised accordingly.
  7.    Let us see as to what could be the cause or what triggered the Government to carry out amendment and bring the Central Information Commissioner and Information Commissioner within the category of so called “sarkari baabu” and whether the amendment is justified?
  8.    At present as per the RTI Act, the salary and allowances of the CIC and IC are same as that of Chief Election Commissioner and Election Commissioner respectively which enjoys a constitutional status as per the provisions of the Constitution of India. Therefore RTI Act gives special status and privileges so that they can work autonomously without any fear from the central body. Currently the tenure is fixed for a period of five years. Amendment means that their tenure can be fixed as per executive rules framed by the Central Government. Today the CIC and IC functionaries are delved with the responsibility of providing information of the government offices to the citizens so that transparency prevails and the citizen comes to know what is happening in the government offices save and except the office which fall under the exception category. Now, pursuant to the amendment, the appointment to the offices of CIC and IC shall be by the Government under the executive rules framed by the Central Government and the Government shall be at will to fix the tenure of CIC and IC and hence can remove, transfer of CIC and IC at their own will. RTI information is sought against the Government and pursuant to the new amendment the appointment of offices of CIC and IC shall be by Government. Can you expect the transparency, if there is no changes to the powers and autonomy of the CIC and IC then what was the need for the amendment !!
  9.    The present tenure of CIC as per section 16 of RTI is fixed for a period of 5 years. Section 16 has been amended to say, “for such term as may be prescribed by the Government”. Similarly Section 27 has been amended to give, “making power to the central Government to determine, pay, allowance, service conditions of CIC and IC.”
  10.    Let us analyse some past orders against the Government or concerned people. Everybody must be aware of the fate of CIC Mr. Sridhar Acharyala who had disclosed information by virtue of his order in respect of the educational qualification of our Hon’ble P.M. Mr Narendra Modi. The disclosure order such made led to transfer of the said CIC from HRD Ministry. Here is one such case where a CIC gives information of a prominent personality who is our Hon’ble P.M. to a citizen and the affect is that the said CIC lost charge of files related to HRD Ministry. Imagine when a Government employee is appointed who has to give information against a Government. Can the same autonomy be still maintained?
  11.    After the demonetization and lapse of considerable time period information was sought in respect of details of black money being retrieved by the Government. The information given revealed the falsity of the claims of the government as approximately 99% of the cash came back into the coffers of Government.
  12.   While steps are taken few businessmen and taxortion has come into place leading to commission of suicides of some of the prominent business class of people, one such being the founder of CCD, Mr. Siddhartha against there was not even demand letter issued from tax authorities, but the same was published in newspapers that the said CCD owner is a defaulter of crores of rupees, whereas there are few who are enjoying being high class businessmen even when they happen to be huge defaulters. On one such information being sought, RBI Director, Mr Raghuram Ranjan submitted the list of defaulters and it was then a citizen came to know about the list of defaulters and then same came to be published on public platform.
  13.    Then details of RBI board meeting were sought by a citizen that transpired prior to demonetization. Information was provided that there was a meeting held at 5.30 p.m. in New Delhi on November 2016 almost two and half hours before Hon’ble P.M. Modi in and address to the nation announced demonetisation decision on 8th November 2016. In an RTI application the Central Bank had reed flagged concerns over the Government claims on curbing black money and counterfeit notes, citing most cash were in form of real sector assets.
  14.    An RBI reply further revealed that within five days of demonetisation, scrapped currency bills worth Rs. 3118.51 Crores were deposited in eleven Gujrat District Co- operative Banks linked to (BJP). Mr. Amit Shah was a director in a few of them. This was done at a time when all through nation Co- operative banks were not allowed to commit normal transaction.
  15.    The claim made by Hon’ble P.M. Mr Narendra Modi in Lok Sabha that lakhs of bogus Ration Cards have been weeded out, their number proved to be false when information was revealed under RTI.
  16.    I understand that some of the above information where the Government was at the receiving end is the main cause for bringing amendment to the RTI Act. Now the Government will appoint its own person through executive order which has been more specifically set out in the amended provisions of Section 27 of the RTI Act. So the real reason is to make RTI toothless.
  17.    Now the question is that CIC or IC does not find a constitutional status in the Constitution then why such autonomy be given to such authority. Let me answer it this way, neither CVC (Central Vigilance Commission) nor CBI had any statutory foundation. The status changed after the outcome in the case of Vineet Narain Versus Union of India. The Apex Court said, “the power conferred on this court by the Constitution are ample to remedy this defect and to ensure enforcement of concept of equality”. The case of Vineet Narain stands for two propositions. The court found that the CVC and CBI were to guarantee constitutional status so that influential people can also be brought into book.
  18.    Recently CBI chief Mr. Alok Verma was transferred as the said CBI chief dared to look into the prohibited filed of the government. The Apex Court held that the transfer was not in accordance to the law.
  19.    Vineet Kumar case and Alok Verma case envisages that even though CBI and CVC was not and never had been found place in Constitution, its role and function in implementing fundamental right and standing between individual and State in independence manner is akin to constitutional functionary.
  20.    P.M Office and President powers are often challenged in High Court and Supreme Court, does it mean that they below the courts. No! Various offices are provided fixed tenure so that they can act independently without any fear. There is no sword lingering over their head of immediate department transfers as and when State or authority pleases.
  21.    Supreme Court in Union of India Versus R. Gandhi President of Madras Bar Association has recognized fixed tenure and stable salaries as an essential aspect of institutional independence.
  22.    Courts had to interfere in appointment of vacant post of CIC, implementation of Lokpal, safeguarding CVC, CBI etc. I understand that the purpose of amendment is to weaken the autonomous powers enjoyed by the office of CIC as the Government has been made uncomfortable in the past, since the office of CIC and IC have revealed information to the government discontent.