The untiring, determined efforts of scores of people who worked, argued and fought for people’s right to information for years together bore fruit when the Right to Information Bill was passed by the Parliament on June 15, 2005. But it took only a few hours for a government to hit hard at the very soul of the law which had become a powerful weapon in the hands of the people. The amendments to the RTI Act, passed by both Houses of Parliament, enable the government to decide the tenure and working conditions of Chief Information Commissioner (CIC) as well as Information Commissioners at the Central and State levels. It is nothing short of a Damocles sword hanging over them.
The original law had given a fixed tenure for the CIC and the Commissioners. The salary and terms of service of the CIC are the same as those of the Chief Election Commissioner. Similarly, the Information Commissioners have the same rank and conditions of Election Commissioners. At the State-level, the SIC has the same salary and terms of ECs and the Commissioners are equated with the Chief Secretary of the State. Their fixed tenure gave them a hassle-free mind to take decisions unmindful of government’s axe falling on them. It granted them freedom to deal with issues without fear of control of any super power. They could work without the worry of transfer or termination of services. But by making the status of CICs and Commissioners equivalent to that of any bureaucrat, under the control of the incumbent government, the free and fair nature of the Commission will undergo a sea change.
The RTI Act is meant to give power to people to monitor the government. It keeps the authorities on tenterhooks. It reminds, off and on, those in power that they are answerable to the people. Citizens can take to task those officers who play hide and seek. This was possible only because of the existence of an independent Commission unmindful of the pull and pressures of the government. Hence this law had always faced threat from vested interests in power both at officers and government level. How inconvenient this law is to those in power becomes evident from the death of as many as 80 RTI activists in the last one decade or so.
The original RTI Act was the result of years of struggles and consultations at various levels. Many brilliant brains had worked behind it. It is the product of the belief that people are the masters in a democracy and they have the right to seek answers and get justice. But, the amendments to the law have been passed without much consultation and enlisting public opinion. It is a violation of the very provisions contained in the law. It has not been given to any committee of the Parliament for its scrutiny. Even the Members of Parliament got a copy of the amendment just a few days before it was introduced in the Houses. In fact, by watering down a powerful law, the government seems to have created a toothless lion and another ‘parrot in the cage.’(Published on 29nd July 2019, Volume XXXI, Issue 31)