Recently, hundreds of activists from different parts of the country gathered in New Delhi to oppose the proposed amendments to the RTI Act and demanding operationalization of anti-corruption laws. They highlighted that the government is undermining the RTI Act by means of the proposed amendment bill and also by not appointing information commissioners.
What is RTI Act?
- The Right to Information (RTI) Act enacted in 2005 was considered to be a powerful instrument for empowering citizens.
- It aims at providing information on the functioning of the government to the people.
- The Act struck a balance between privacy and transparency by prohibiting the disclosure of personal information if it has no relationship to any public activity or would cause unwarranted invasion of privacy.
- RTI Act provides for the establishment of Central and State Information Commission.
About the Central Information Commission
- Central Information Commission is the statutory authority under the RTI Act to receive and inquire into a complaint from any person who has not been able to submit information.
- Its jurisdiction extends over all Central Public Authorities.
- Appointment: Chief Information Commission includes 1 Chief Information Commissioner (CIC) and not more than 10 Information Commissioners (ICs) who are appointed by the President of India based on the recommendation of a selection committee consists of Prime Minister as a chairperson, the leader of single largest opposition party in Lok Sabha and a Union Cabinet Minister nominated by PM.
- Tenure: CIC and ICs hold office for the period of 5 years or until attaining the age of 65 years. CIC is not eligible for reappointment.
What are the merits of the RTI Act?
- Despite several challenges to its implementation, people have used it fiercely and defended it against every attack and put it to sustained use.
- It offers the sense of hope for the human desire for the constitutional rights of dignity & equality and public ethics and empowers the people to demand answers for such issues.
- It encourages a culture of asking questions since it makes ordinary RTI activists spend countless hours debating sections, cases, applications, and answers.
- It can help us escape from policy paralysis and build a more informed, equitable and robust decision-making process.
- Furthermore, it helps in improving transparency and accountability of the public authorities and as a result, better governance.
What are the present challenges before the Act?
- The Act did not give enough powers to the Information Commissioners to implement their decisions. Their directions to the public authorities to undertake adequate steps to comply with the Act are usually ignored. Moreover, 25% of positions for information commissioners in India remains vacant as the government is unwilling to appoint them.
- RTI is ineffective in several cases where the information is related to higher levels of the government.
- The clogging of the RTI system is also due to the high number of applicants who are mostly the employees of public institutions asking frivolous queries. Their applications have continued to exist alongside those of many RTI activists who have done good work often risking their life and limb.
- The debate over the inclusion of political parties and judiciary into the Act for complete transparency in the government.
What are the proposed amendments by the government?
- The government wants to do away with the equivalence in salaries & allowances of the Central Information Commissioners with the Election Commissioners because of the following reasons
- The functions being carried out by the Election Commission of India and the central and state Information Commissions are entirely different.
- While the Election Commission is a constitutional body, the Information Commissions are statutory bodies, and their differing mandates mean that their status and service conditions need to be rationalized accordingly.
- The government also proposes to replace the present fixed 5-year tenure of the ICs with tenure as may be prescribed by it.
What are the concerns with these amendments?
- The assumption that transparency is less crucial for democracy than holding of free and fair elections is absurd.
- The government fixing the ICs tenure would negatively impact their independence and authority. Because, it will give the central government a greater grip on Information Commissioners, who have been giving orders which the government finds inconvenient.
- Thus these amendments would actually weaken the commissioners instead of strengthening them (which is the decade-long demand).
- This will result in the delay in disposal of cases, which is combined by the backlog in the High Courts, where a number of decisions of the commission are challenged.
- The centre usurping the power to fix the tenure and salaries of the State Information Commissioners raises key issues of federalism.
- The secrecy around the amendments has prevented any meaningful debate or public engagement with the proposed changes. There has been no debate around the bill.
What is the way forward?
- The government should hold a public debate on making the Act more effective instead of just focussing on diluting its provisions.
- If the issues in the RTI are not timely addressed, then the law will lose its promise especially with regards to ensuring transparency at higher levels of governance.