Modi Government Trying to Weaken RTI Act With Draft Amendments, Say Activists
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The Narendra Modi government is trying to amend the Right to Information (RTI) Act 2005, but RTI activists in the country have raised concerns that the proposed amendments would weaken the legislation, which has empowered millions of people to hold public authorities accountable.
On 25 May, the National Campaign for Peoples’ Right to Information (NCPRI) wrote to Prime Minister Narendra Modi expressing “anguish and concern” regarding the “regressive” amendments to the RTI Act 2005 being proposed by the BJP-led NDA government.
Urging Modi to not dilute the Act, the activists associated with the NCPRI have demanded that the government make the text of the draft RTI Amendment Bill available in the public domain for scrutiny and discussion, before it is introduced in Parliament.
Among the most worrisome proposed amendments, said the NCPRI while citing media reports, was the proposal that the central government and state governments would decide the salaries of information commissioners through rules — a move that is likely to compromise the independence and autonomy in the functioning of the commissioners.
The information commissions (ICs), set up under the RTI Act are critical to citizens exercising the hard-won Right to Information, which allows citizens to question and seek information from public authorities. The ICs are “the final authorities to adjudicate on claims of access to information which is a deemed fundamental right under Article 19(1) of the Constitution.”
“The RTI law currently pegs the salaries, allowances and other terms of service of the Chief of all information commissions and the information commissioners of the Central Information Commissions at the level of a judge of the Supreme Court, while those of the state information commissioners are pegged at the level of the Chief Secretary of the state,” said the letter by the NCPRI.
“The status conferred on commissioners under the RTI Act is to empower them to carry out their functions autonomously and require even the highest offices to comply with the provisions of the law. Empowering the central and state governments to decide salaries of information commissioners would seriously undermine the independence of information commissions,” it said.
As it is, the information commissions in the country are in a mess, with the posts of commissioners, including that of the chief information commissioner, lying vacant in several state ICs.
The draft rules in the amendment bill, issued by the Department of Personnel and Training (DoPT) of the Government of India, has reportedly been approved by the Cabinet.
There are also several other issues, raised earlier by the RTI activists, with the proposed amendments that will complicate the process of seeking information from the government.
But the text of the amendment bill has not been made public, and no comments and suggestions from the public has been sought yet.
“This manner of legislating important laws undermines people’s democratic right to know and participate in the legislative process and prevents public scrutiny of the provisions of a proposed bill.”
The RTI activists — including Aruna Roy, Anjali Bhardwaj, Nikhil Dey, Venkatesh Nayak, Shailesh Gandhi and Shekhar Singh, among several others — have demanded that the Modi government make the amendment bill public in keeping with the pre-legislative consultation policy of the government of India.
“In 2014, a Pre-legislative Consultation Policy was adopted by the Government of India which mandates that all draft legislations (including subordinate legislation) be placed in the public domain for 30 days for inviting public comments and a summary of comments be made available on the concerned ministry’s website prior to being sent for Cabinet approval,” the NCPRI reminded the BJP-led NDA government.
“The necessity and significance of public consultation in the process of law-making is widely recognised by democratic governments across the world,” the letter added.
More than six million RTI applications are filed every year, and the RTI Act is “the most extensively used transparency legislation globally,” to quote the NCPRI. “The law has been used by people to fight corruption and wrongdoing in the system.”
“We strongly urge you to ensure that the RTI Act, 2005 is not diluted in any manner,” said the NCPRI.
“The text of the proposed RTI Amendment Bill must be immediately put in the public domain, along with reasons for proposing the changes, to enable wide discussion and public debate before it is introduced in Parliament. An effective participatory consultative process must be adopted to invite public comments and suggestions on the proposed legislation.”
The importance of the Right to Information, and the threat that it poses to public authorities by holding them answerable, can be gauged by the rising number of attacks and murders of RTI activists in the country. In fact, the states of Gujarat and Maharashtra — which have been ruled by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) for over two decades and one-and-a-half decades, respectively — have seen the highest number of attacks on RTI users.
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