Analaysis: RTI Amendment Bill

Reading time: 6-8 minutes.

The modern democracy is institutionalised by the system of checks and balances. The government officials violated this Right to Information Act by virtually usurping the fundamental right of “an informed citizenry.” This Amendment, struck the very foundation of the citizen-centric Right to Information Act, by disabling its neutrality making it favourable to the government.

The authorities under the RTI Act, are merely toothless tigers at the mercy of the government for tenure and salary structure. The ethos of RTI, i.e. transparency and accountability of the government is torn into pieces as the ultimate accountability is not to the people forming the democracy, but to the government running it. 

Background:

Right to Information Act was passed by Parliament on 15 June 2005 and came fully into force on 12 October 2005. This act was enacted to consolidate the fundamental right in the Indian constitution ‘freedom of speech’ which is guaranteed under Article 19.

It empowers individuals to access information that is being kept by the state. It thereby ensures transparency as the government remains accountable to individuals in the way it carries out its functions. The RTI Act has also consciously given Information Commissioners status and privileges equal to Election Commissioner to guarantee that they operate independently and autonomously. 

Importance:

The Right to Information holds that every citizen should have the right to obtain access to government records. The reasons often advanced in support of the right are; First, that the right of information adds the accountability of government and its agencies;

Second, that it empowers the citizens to contribute more efficiently to deliberate on the relevant questions of public policy and third, that right to information renders justice in administrative decision-making processes concerning individuals.

Salient features of RTI:

  1. The right to information endeavours maximum transparency in the functioning of the Government, and it provides access to pertinent information to their stakeholders so that they get extensive knowledge about government policies.
  2. The core objective of the Right to Information is to ensure that the activities of public officials are to open to the sharp eye of citizen’s scrutiny. 
  3. The applicant can solicit inspection of works, documents record certified copies of documents, etc.
  4. Information under this act includes any material in any form, including documents, records, email memos, etc.
  5. The public authorities are required to designate senior officers as Central / State Public Information Officers who would be responsible for the disposal of applications. 
  6. Period: In the ordinary course, information to an applicant is to be supplied within 30 days from the receipt of the application by the public authority. If the information sought concerns the life or liberty of a person, it should be supplied within 48 hours.
  7. Section 8 (1) of this act mentions exemptions against furnishing information and Section 8 (2) provides for the disclosure of information exempted under Official Secrets Act, 1923 if the larger public interest is served.

Section 8 of the Act provides that no information should be disclosed if it creates an unwarranted invasion of the privacy of any individual.

This exception states that there is no obligation to disclose information which pertains to personal information, the disclosure of which has no nexus to any public activity or interest, or which would cause unwarranted invasion/intrusion of the privacy of the individual unless the more sufficient public interest justifies the disclosure of such information.

Changes in the recent Bill:

The Right to Information Bill will alter the provisions of service of the Central Information Commissioners and Information Commissioners at the center and in the states.

  1. The Bill intends to modify the fixed tenure of 5 years of the Information Commissioners as “for such term as may be prescribed by the Central Government.” 
  2. It further gives the rulemaking power to the Central Government to determine the pay and service conditions (salary structure) of the Information Commissioner. 

Implications:

The Bill will water down the independence of the information commissions by bringing them under substantive government control. Consequently, the right to information will become just an illusory without the independence of the Information Commissioners. 

Criticism:

  1. Critics believe that amending the two cardinal provisions of the act, as envisioned by the amendment bill, will jeopardize its effectiveness.
  2. Opposition parties argue that authorizing the Government to take a call on the tenure and salary structure of the RTI authorities will only rob their independence. Terming the Amendment as the “RTI Elimination Bill,” they have claimed that even honest officials will stop disclosing sensitive information if their jobs and salaries are at stake.
  3. The Amendment has disempowered common people while empowering the Central Government.
  4. The Amendment violates Article 19(1)(a) of the Indian Constitution. 

Conclusion:

By controlling the tenure and acquiring the authority to fix salaries, allowances and other terms of service, the Government has radically altered the character of the Information Commissions, consequently violating Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution.

This amendment shall be challenged in the court to restore the status quo, failing which, the right to information would be virtually violated.

–This article is brought to you in collaboration with Gauri Suri from Army Institute of Law, Mohali.


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