The present government headed by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has followed a particular pattern while amending legislations that seek to empower the citizens of this country. The amendments to the National Investigation Agency Act, Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act and the Protection of Human Rights Act are a few examples. At present, the Right to Information Act (RTI Act) has caught the attention of the public, albeit a year late. Unlike what Shashi Tharoor mentioned on the floor of Parliament that these amendments were not open for public debate prior to their introduction, these amendments were in the making for about a year. However, these amendments which were passed on July 22, have struck at Indian citizens’ right to know.
The amendments to sections 13 and 16 of the RTI Act will convert the terms of the information commissioners both in the state as well as at the Union level to being subject to the whims of the union government. Wajahat Habibullah has also pointed out that the salaries payable to the information commissioners will be subject to the whims of the union government. However, the saving grace in terms of salaries is that the salaries cannot be lowered. What really is the crux of the issue is that, these amendments have given the union government unbridled power regarding the tenure and salaries of the information commissioners. Hence, the message is clear, ‘do not aggravate us and your salary and tenure will be secure’.
What is surprising, however, is how the matter went over everybody’s heads when these amendments were on the table since 2018. As NewsClick has reported earlier, the Central Information Commission as well as the State Information Commissions have a tremendous backlog of pending matters. To further add to this, the vacancies in the information commissions have resulted in the backlog of cases which may be presumed to have created a feedback loop. Now, with tenure and salaries in the hands of the union government, one may also presume that filling the vacancies will entail bullying the newly appointed information commissioners.
Also watch: The Modi Government Wants to Weaken the RTI Act
The preamble of the RTI Act states that it is: “An Act to provide for setting out the practical regime of right to information for citizens to secure access to information under the control of public authorities, in order to promote transparency and accountability in the working of every public authority, the constitution of a Central Information Commission and State Information Commissions and for matters connected therewith or incidental thereto.”
By bringing the tenure and salaries under the control of the union government, transparency will definitely take a hit. On the other hand, the amendments also display the present trend of centralisation that is creeping and affecting Indian federalism. For example, the amendments to several security legislations has laid the groundwork towards centralising law and order which is a state subject under List II of the Seventh Schedule to the Constitution of India. That the Union Government will now have control over the salaries and tenures of the members of the State Information Commissions also displays this trend. Whether the trend can be reversed appears to depend on strong regional forces pushing for true federalism rather than making do with ‘cooperative federalism’.