The Right to Information Act, 2005 is an instrument that has been placed in the hands of the people of Independent India, which also happens to be the world’s largest democracy. It is a pioneering contribution of the people’s movement that not only mobilized millions of people across the country but also is seen as having acted as a deterrent for government servants against taking arbitrary decisions.
On July 19, 2019, the ruling NDA government introduced the RTI Amendment Bill, 2019 in the Lok Sabha. The proposed amendments could have the effect of eroding the independence of Information Commissioners (charged with following up on RTI requests) and can dilute democracy’s strongest and widely used framework of transparency.
The Bill amends Sections 13 and 16 of the Right to Information (RTI) Act, 2005. Section 13 of the original Act sets the term of the central Chief Information Commissioner and Information Commissioners at five years. The original bill thus gives the position of Chief Information Commissioner parity in tenure with the Chief Election Commissioner. The amendment proposes that the appointment will be “for such term as may be prescribed by the Central Government”.
Despite protests and resistance, the man who proposed the bill in parliament last week Mr. Jitendra Singh, Minister of state of Prime Ministers Office and Minister of Personnel, Public Grievances and Pensions has asserted that the central government is “not interfering and will not do anything to affect the autonomy of the institution,” (ThePrint).
The Bill states, “The functions being carried out by the Election Commission of India and the Central and State Information Commissions are totally different. The Election Commission of India is a Constitutional body…On the other hand, the Central Information Commission and State Information Commission are statutory bodies established under the Right to Information Act, 2005.”
Given the magnanimity of the law and the important role played by the RTI over the past 15 years, the government’s amendment push without public consultation raises several questions. The bill’s original protections of fixed tenure helped information commissioners maintain their independence from government interference and the move to abrogate those protections leaves the entire mechanism vulnerable.
Nearly 6 million Indians have availed of this important tool with a majority of them under the age of 30. From information about the NPA crisis to local environmental clearances, the RTI has empowered citizens, especially the young, and civil society to question government inaction and corruption.
A loss in its independence thus weakens our democratic fabric.