RTI Amendment Bill 2019: Government is trying to fix something that ain’t broke?

right to information bill 2019 venkatesh nayak rti india

“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”- is an age-old saying that has guided many a practical person, including governments. The National Democratic Alliance in its third term (NDA-III) seeks to encroach upon Parliament’s power to determine the salaries and allowances payable and the tenure fixed by The Right to Information Act (RTI Act) for Information Commissioners at the Central and State level. The motion to move a Bill to amend this law was supported by 224 MPs- a rare occasion where a vote and subsequently a division was required to merely table the Bill in the House. Some segments of the media misreported that the Bill was also approved by the Lok Sabha with only nine MPs voting against it. The Lok Sabha’s List of Business indicates, this Amendment Bill will be taken up for consideration and passing today (22nd July, 2019). Going by the this vote and the composition of the House, it is likely to pass muster.

In its current form, the RTI Act equates the salaries and allowances to the Central Chief Information Commissioner, other Central Information Commissioners and the heads of State Information Commissions with that of the members of the Election Commission. State Information Commissioners are entitled to salaries and allowances similar to the Chief Secretary- the highest ranking babu in a State. They all are granted a tenure of five years and can serve for this period as Information Commissioners or head of such bodies or until they reach the age of 65 years.

The Central Government wants to remove this fixity by seeking the power to make Rules to determine salaries and allowances and tenure of all Information Commissioners across the country (except Jammu and Kashmir to which the Central RTI Act does not apply). While tabling the amendment Bill, the Union Minister of State for Personnel, Public Grievances and Pensions tried to explain that such bodies established by an ordinary statute cannot be equated with constitutional bodies like the Election Commission of India for the purpose of fixing salary and allowances. What detailed justification he will give for removing fixity of tenure remains to be seen. The initial debate also demonstrated the Government’s reluctance to accede to the Opposition’s demand to refer this Bill to a Parliamentary Standing Committee.

Public memory is short. This is where historians, civil society advocates and the investigative media must come in to delve deep into legislative history and critically examine the Government’s justification for bringing in these amendments. In 2003 NDA-I placed the Central Vigilance Commission (CVC)- a statutory body, at par with the Union Public Service Commission in terms of salaries and allowances. Ten years earlier, in 1993, the Central Government had placed the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC)- another statutory body at par with the Supreme Court of India in terms of salaries and allowances of the Chairperson and Commissioners.

Going by the Union Minister’s justification for the RTI Amendment Bill, should citizens expect the downgrading of salaries of the heads and members of the CVC and the NHRC in the near future? If not, the proposed RTI amendments will smack of manifest arbitrariness- a ground for challenging their validity in the Constitutional Courts. The Government’s explanation for amending the RTI Act is unconvincing. What is the problem it is trying to fix through these amendments?

This article was originally published here on 24th July, 2019. Since then the bill has been passed in both the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha, and has received presidential assent.