PM Narendra Modi

OPINION | Has Modi government given ‘deathblow’ to RTI act and made CIC ‘toothless tiger’?

The Narendra Modi government on Thursday managed the numbers in Rajya Sabha to get the amendments to the Right To Information law passed.

Lok Sabha had passed The Right to Information (Amendment) Bill, 2019 on Monday. On Thursday, Rajya Sabha passed it by a voice vote.

A count of the vote on the motion to send the bill to Select Committee was taken with 117 MPs voting against and 75 in favour. On the motion, TRS, BJD and YSR-Congress members said to have voted with the ruling NDA.

The amendment gave the Union Government powers to decide salary and service terms of the statutory body head and its members.

Narendra Modi government’s stand

Personnel and Training Minister Jitendra Singh rejected opposition charge of the amendment diluting the RTI provision.

He said amendment will institutionalise Chief Information Commission and strengthen the provision. The government said the bill was brought with clean intention and it is trying to live up to its motto of “minimum government, maximum governance”.

Commenting on the development, ex-information commissioner Sridhar Acharyulu said the bill would be a “stab in the back” for the CIC and a “deathblow” to the Act.

Modi government’s experience with the RTI act

There seem to be five cases which have prompted the government to bring forward the amendment.

Reportedly, the first case was in which the Central Information Commissioner (CIC) ordered disclosure of the PM’s educational qualification.

In the second case, the PM had, reportedly, claimed that four crore bogus ration card were weeded out by his government.

However, as per media reports, RTI showed that the number of bogus cards was actually about 2.3 crore and a correction had to be made by the PM.

The third account was on disclosure of demonetisation.

“It was CIC decision which revealed that in less than four hours before the PM announced demonetisation on November 8, 2016, the central board of RBI had given its approval to the scheme but rejected demonetisation,” news agency PTI quoted Congress leader Jairam Ramesh, as saying.

RBI had rejected because of two of its key justifications — elimination of black money and counterfeit notes.

“In an RTI enquiry, it was revealed that the former RBI governor Raghuram Rajan submitted a list of defaulters to PM office, 8 months to his Prime Ministerial tenure,” said the Congress leader while mentioning the fourth reason.

Now, the fifth matter. The CIC had directed the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) to disclose the information about the quantum of black money brought back to India.

However, the PMO had refused to share details citing a provision of the RTI Act that bars disclosure of information that may impede investigation and prosecution of offenders.

About the RTI Act, 2005

The RTI Act was passed by Parliament on June 15, 2005. It came into force on October 13, 2005. It allows citizens of the country to access information under the control of public authorities. The aim is to promote transparency and accountability in the working of every public authority.

This Act allowed a five year term or until the age of 65, whichever is earlier, to the Chief Information Commissioner (CIC). The amendment proposes that the appointment will be “for such term as may be prescribed by the central government.”

In the original Act, the CIC was paid as much as the Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) and the Information Commissioners were paid as much as Election Commissioners. The amendment provides for salaries to be prescribed by the Centre.

Reportedly, every day, over 4800 RTI applications are filed. Over 17,500,000 applications had been filed in the first ten years of the commencement of the act.

I personally believe that these amendments will have a wide-ranging consequence. Now, instead of fixing salaries and tenure by law, bureaucrats will decide on a case-by-case basis.

The amendments will dilute job security and make information commissioners vulnerable to the wishes of the Union Government.

No doubt, some people or group(s) or organisation(s) may have misused the RTI act but there are ways of dealing with them. Weakening the act is definitely not a welcoming step.

[ALSO READ] OPINION | Amendment in RTI Act: A move to make CIC vulnerable to Centre’s pressure?

About the author: Anurag Sason is journalist with more than 7 years of experience in mainstream journalism. He has worked in newspaper, news agency, TV and digital media.  He tweets at @AnuragSason

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Disclaimer: The views expressed by the author are personal.

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