Govt bid to weaken act?

Right to Information

By Dr S.Saraswathi
(Former Director, ICSSR, New Delhi)

A Bill to amend the Right to Information Act 2005 seeks to vest the power of fixing salary and allowances, and deciding postings, transfers and tenure of Information Commissioners (IC) of the Central and State Information Commissions including their chiefs (CIC and SCIC) with the Central government. An impression has gained ground that this will dilute the powers of the ICs and add to that of the government by vesting not only the power of appointment but also fixing the terms of appointment.
The hard earned right to information has, within a span of about a decade, helped opening of many secrets hidden in official records inaccessible to the public and hence away from public knowledge.
The voice of dissent from within the Central Information Commission itself to the proposed amendment deserves public attention and reaction and also government response to ascertain its validity, so as to prevent both weakening of the statutory rights and undue infringement on private area by providing open access to all kinds of information.
The argument that the Information Commissions are statutory bodies set up under an Act of Parliament (2005) and not Constitutional bodies like the Election Commission and that the Union Government has the power to introduce amendments to its laws seems valid. The amendment involves a substantial change from the position taken in the statute, which places the CIC and ICs and SCIC and SICs as equal to Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) and Election Commissioners (ECs), who are equal in salary status to Supreme Court Judges.
The Bill has introduced uncertainty in the status of the Information Commissioners and the Commission, which in itself is a downward trend. The oft repeated argument that the right to information stems from the right to freedom guaranteed under Article 19(1) of the Constitution as a fundamental right and cannot be changed is being threatened.
This move is in marked contrast to other moves simultaneously going on to bring more and more departments and agencies of the government and even certain private organisations under the RTI Act so as to promote transparency in transactions and day-to-day functioning of institutions and thereby reduce the scope for corruption and improve efficiency. Prolonged controversy is going on about bringing political party funding under the RTI.
A Public Interest Litigation (PIL) filed by three organisations has revealed that thousands of petitions are pending before the Commissions and many of these for years, but several posts of ICs remain vacant. Four vacancies in the Central Commission and in Maharashtra and over 23,500 and 40,000 pending petitions respectively were reported. Not a single IC is appointed in Andhra Pradesh. There is no CIC in Gujarat, Nagaland, and Maharashtra. All these are cited as evidence of prevailing indifference to honour the right to information.
In many States, the Commissions are not at all active. Voluntary disclosure of information is rarely made. Common citizens rarely exercise the right except a few lawyers, social activists, and civil society organisations. Many are not aware of the right. Still, it has made a huge impact in view of certain big disclosures concerning misuse of official power and positions and corruption in high places.
President Clinton once remarked that, “Government information is a public asset. The government will promote the timely and equitable access to government information via a diverse array of sources, both public and private, including State and local governments and libraries…”
The kind of information that contributes to knowledge is different from the kind of information hidden in official files guarded under official secrecy. In both cases, the maxim that knowledge is power works and information is a window to knowledge and provokes a bid to acquire it.
The RTI Act has escaped many attempts at dilution of its provisions. In 2012, the Supreme Court ruled that the competent authority should prefer a person who is or has been a judge of the High Court for appointment as Information Commissioner while the head of the Commissions at the Centre and States should be drawn from Chief Justices of High Courts or from judges of the Supreme Court. In appointing judicial members, the CJI and the Chief Justices of the High Courts of respective States were to be consulted.
Information Commissioners are not generally drawn from the judiciary in any country. There were practical difficulties in adopting the Supreme Court’s ruling. The retirement age of Supreme Court judges and of the Information Commissioner being 65, the rule regarding appointment of retired judges could not be implemented.
But, the suggestion of the government to exclude official notes in files except those relating to development and social issues, and papers relating to evaluation of candidates for appointments had to be dropped. Civil society organisations opposed suggestions to exempt the CBI from the purview of the Act.
The RTI Act is an effective instrument of empowerment of common citizens. It can be as effective as Lokpal by its deterrent effect to prevent administrative malpractices. It has been a boon to common people and a shield against cheating in payment of wages, entitlements under public distribution system and welfare schemes. It provides a constant watch over the functioning of public officials. To reach the goal of good governance, transparency is a must which is what RTI can promote.
Any dilution of the Act will rob the citizens of what little they have gained in making administration truly public, transparent, and accountable. The business of government is people’s business and, therefore, people have a right to know how it is going on.
The definition of information as a positive force in a democratic society can be traced back to American President James Madison who said in 1822 that, “A popular government, without popular information or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy or perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance, and a people who mean to be their own Governors, must arm themselves with the power knowledge gives”.
Right to Information is also part of Target 10 of Goal 16 of the Sustainable Development Goals which requires States to ensure public access to information.
Seekers of information have to keep in mind that the ICs are not bodies to resolve disputes or conduct research to gather information. They can only furnish available information not normally made public. This has been clarified by the Supreme Court in some cases and the limits of jurisdiction of the ICs have also been specified.
Right to information is absolutely necessary for democratic participation. People have to know how their government is functioning for governance should not be isolated from the people. The tradition of official secrecy, which provided a cover for maladministration, is broken by this right. However, people also must learn to use information in the right spirit and not to spread fallacious interpretations and partial information to confuse the public.
Therefore, choice of Information Commissioners at the Centre and States and their status are important issues. Democratisation of access to information cannot indeed be halted or weakened in view of proliferation of instruments for acquiring and accessing information.—INFA