It’s not easy to think of a measure that has done more to deepen and strengthen Indian democracy than the Right to Information Act (RTI) of 2005.
It’s not easy to think of a measure that has done more to deepen and strengthen Indian democracy than the Right to Information Act (RTI) of 2005. Over the last 14 years it has fundamentally shifted the balance between citizens’ rights and the executive in favour of the former by giving citizens the right to inquire into decision-making and, thus, the very exercise of power. It’s also, as Aruna Roy, one of its architects, says, a weapon against “arbitrariness, privilege and corrupt governance”. In short, it’s what India badly needs.
This is why there’s deep concern about the government’s attempt to amend the RTI Act. Is there really a need for this? Or is it an attempt to dilute, diminish and weaken the RTI structure?
The government proposes two critical amendments. They affect Sections 13 and 16 of the RTI Act, which determine the tenure and salaries of chief information commissioners and information commissioners, both at the Central and state levels. At the moment they have five-year terms (or until the age of 65, whichever is earlier) and their salaries are linked to those of the Chief Election Commissioner and election commissioners at the Central level and to information commissioners and chief secretaries at the state level. This could change drastically.
The amendments propose that the tenures will be “for such term as may be prescribed by the Central government”, and the salaries, allowances and other terms of service will also be similarly “prescribed by the Central government”. In other words, what the government wants.
To begin with, this is arbitrary and could be capricious. Different people could be given different lengths of service and salary and there will be no requirement on the government to explain if it chooses not to. The people it sees as “loyalists” could be granted lengthy tenures and hefty salaries. They, in turn, could ensure that the RTI system does not stand up to the executive but buckles under its pressure. Consequently, the independence of the commission is at stake.
These amendments also amount to a serious downgrading of RTI commissioners. In a hierarchical country like India, where position and emoluments determine influence and effectiveness, this will demote information commissioners and, thus, directly diminish their power. Once again, the commission’s independence will suffer.
An important corollary is the impact this would have on the sort of people who seek to be information commissioners. Anyone with a higher income and status will be uninterested in the job. Consequently, the quality of information commissioners will suffer.
The irony is that it was a parliamentary committee and not the Manmohan Singh government that decided to peg information commissioners’ salaries and status to the level of election commissioners. Ram Nath Kovind, now President, was a member of that committee. This was, therefore, a conscious, deliberate and bipartisan decision of Parliament, which the Narendra Modi government wants to overturn.
Equally ironic is the fact that in 2017 the Modi government brought the salary structure of 19 quasi-judicial administrative commissions on par with those of Supreme Court and high court judges. The aim was to give them the same standing and influence. Now, the opposite is being done to the Information Commission.
The government’s explanation is that the Information Commission is a statutory body and cannot, therefore, be treated on par with the Election Commission, a constitutional body. As Jitendra Singh, minister of state in the Prime Minister’s Office, asks, if Information Commission rulings can be appealed in a high court, how can the commissioners have the status of Supreme Court judges? But he has clearly forgotten that Election Commission orders are often appealed at the high court level, and that doesn’t constitute grounds for rethinking the commission’s status.
Finally, so close is the government to a majority in the Rajya Sabha that the RTI Act’s future depends, I suspect, on how parties like the JD(U), Biju Janata Dal, the YSR Congress and, perhaps, the TRS vote. I wonder if they appreciate that the fate of Indian democracy lies in their hands.