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Concerted efforts to weaken RTI - Journey so far

Concerted efforts to weaken RTI  - Journey so far
- Dr. Kalpeshkumar L Gupta, Founder, ProBono India

India got one of the powerful act in the form of RTI Act, 2005. Dream was realised after the long battles of RTI activists and public spirited persons. Immediately after the passing of RTI Act, office of public authorities flooded with RTI applications which were to be handled by officials not trained in this regard. RTI helped to unearth many irregularities prevailing in the administration. Gradually Government and its official started feeling uncomfortable with the effective use of this act. Government official learnt the trick to defeat the purpose of RTI act by doing lingering the matter for months and years. Posts of Information Commissioners were also lying vacant due to Government’s lethargic approach. Public Interest Litigations were filed in SC, HC for appointment of Information Commissioner across country. Thousand of RTI Appeals are pending across office of information commissioners throughout the country. More than 31000+ appeals (28000+) and complaints (3000+) are pending in Central Information Commission’s office. All efforts have been made to weaken this powerful act by way of gradually amendments. Recent amendment regarding appointment, salary of Information Commissioners which will cause irreparable lose to RTI movement in the country.
Lets see some highlights of previous effort to amend RTI Act.

in August 2006, the Union Cabinet approved proposals to amend the law in order to keep “file notings” or opinion and advice recorded on file by officers involved in a decision-making chain on issues other than those relating to development and social issues

In year 2013, CIC (Dt. 3/06/2013) held that Government is Public Authority and they should appoint Public Information Officers and Appellate Authority. Immediately after this Govt. proposed amendment in RTI (The Right to Information (Amendment) Bill, 2013) that Political Parties will be out of the purview of RTI Act. Till date political parties have not complied with this order even after complaint made in CIC and approach to Supreme Court.

Govt. also come up with Rules that RTI Application should not be of more than 500 words which also amount to restrict RTI applications. But fortunately it was clarified that no application shall be rejected only on the grounds that it contains more than 500 words

In year 2017, Department of Personnel and Training (DoPT) drafted new Rules namely The Right to Information Rules, 2017 under RTI Act under which an RTI case would cease to exist after the death of an applicant (Rule 12). Venkatesh Nayak of Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI) said, “This is a dangerous move because it could mean anybody powerful could threaten and make an applicant withdraw his application. Why should this be allowed? In fact, the Commission should ensure that if this information sought is in public interest, it should be proactively disclosed.”  It also lay out format for second appeal before CIC which also add in further process. Appeal and Complaint in simple manner suffice the purpose if all details are there in chronological order with all supported document. There are some positive aspects in the said rules, one of these is, Rule 16 for Compliance of the orders of the commission

In July 2018, Govt. proposed The Right to Information (Amendment) Bill, 2018 suggesting many changes some are mentioned below.

The Amendment Bill seeks to incorporate the following changes in the RTI Act as it stands today:

1) remove the stipulation regarding the remuneration payable to Chief Information Commissioner and the Information Commissioners of the CIC and place discretionary power in the hands of GoI to vary it at will through the exercise of rule-making powers;
2) remove the stipulation regarding the remuneration payable to the State Chief Information Commissioner and the Information Commissioners of the State Information Commissions (SICs) and place discretionary power in the hands of GoI to vary it at will through the exercise of rule-making powers;
3) remove the fixity of tenure for the Chief Information and Information Commissioners at both the Central and State levels (one term of five years maximum, and superannuation at the age of 65 years) provided in the law and place discretionary power in the hands of GoI to vary it at will through the exercise of rule-making powers; 6 and
4) empower GoI to make rules on the aforementioned subject matters.

People across the country protested the Bill. Prof Acharyulu stated that The Right to Information (Amendment) Bill 2018 attempts to dilute the independence of Central and State Information Commissioners besides giving undue powers to the government of the day to appoint commissioners with an uncertain term, status and salary.  The Bill intends to defeat the very purpose of the RTI Act 2005, besides being an affront to federalism enshrined as a basic feature of the Indian Constitution.

Government made a strategy and finally after the election they achieved what they wanted to.

Recently on July 25, 2019, Rajya Sabha passed the Right to Information (Amendment) Bill, 2019 which has created unrest across the country. All are under the apprehension that Information Commissioners will become puppet in the hands of Government. Govt official told that there is no motivation to curtail the independence of the RTI Act. At least seven former Information Commissioners of the Central Information Commission termed proposed amendments as a direct attack on peoples’ fundamental right to information. Shailesh Gandhi said that the government has given no plausible reason for bringing amendments to the RTI Act. He countered the claim of the government that the RTI Act was drafted hurriedly and therefore, there were anomalies in it. Prof Sridhar said that Commissions could survive only because their tenure and salary were protected by law.

25-July-2019 20:01 IST

Rajya Sabha passes RTI Amendment Bill, 2019 

Bill passed in Lok Sabha on 22nd July No motivation to curtail the independence of the RTI Act: Dr Jitendra Singh
After being passed in Lok Sabha recently, the RTI Amendment Bill, 2019 was passed by the Rajya Sabha today.

Speaking on the occasion, Dr Jitendra Singh said that there is no motivation to curtail the independence of the RTI Act. There is no interference as far as the independence of the Act is concerned, the Minister assured. Speaking about the fixation of the tenure of Information Commissioners, he clarified that it is never mentioned in the amendment that the Government will change it after every two years, as alleged by the Opposition. The Government will not have unbridled powers to amend the rules, he emphasised. The Minister said that the Government is open to the suggestions and the amendment is being done with a clean intention. On the issue of referring it to the Select Committee of the House, the Minister said that it is the prerogative of the members and it should be determined on the basis of the merit of the Bill.

The Minister said that the Government has always focused on the principle of ‘maximum governance, minimum government’.  He mentioned about various such initiatives of the Government such as self attestation, abolition of interviews etc. The essence of these initiatives is aimed at accountability and citizen-centric approach of the Government. The Minister also said that ‘Mobile App’ was brought by the Government to enable the citizens to file RTI any time. He added that in the last five years, most of the information is available in the public domain.

Speaking about the objective of bringing this amendment, the Minister said that CIC is a statutory body and Election Commission is a Constitutional body. Therefore, the mandate of Election Commission of India and Central and State Information Commissions are different and needed to be determined accordingly. He clarified that this amendment has been brought in without any motivation. This will help in streamlining the RTI, he added. He assured that this will help to strengthen the RTI Act.

The Bill was not referred to a Select Committee, with 117 members voting against referring the bill to a select committee, and 75 members voting for it.
The Lok Sabha had passed the Right to Information (Amendment) Bill, 2019 on 22nd July. In this amendment, it is proposed to amend the Right to Information 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.

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