RTI Act: Government Fixing Something That Isn’t Broken

NEW DELHI, INDIA - JULY 19: Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal during the inauguration of CCTV project, at Guru Nanak Nagar, on July 19, 2019 in New Delhi, India. (Photo by Sanchit Khanna/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)

Pop quiz: what is common to the Adarsh, 2G and Commonwealth Games scams?

Of course, they all were scandals that unfolded under the UPA regime. But the answer we were looking for was: The lid on these cases were essentially lifted through humble RTI queries. In fact, the RTI route has helped unravel thousands of uncomfortable cases, big and small, across India.

The RTI law, which came into being in 2005, is perhaps the single most potent legal tool that empowers the person on the street.

And when the government of the day wants to bring in some amendments to RTI law, the civil society is bound to feel a little wary. The Centre, last week, introduced a Bill in the Lok Sabha seeking for itself powers to set the service conditions and salaries for Information Commissioners at both the Central and State levels.

Introducing the Bill (Right to Information (Amendment) Bill), Minister of State in the Prime Minister's Office Jitendra Singh claimed that the changes proposed were for administrative convenience and would help in ease of delivery of RTI Act.

But nobody is ready to buy this argument. Some have it that the government is trying to fix something that ain't broke. Others, however, see an even more sinister plan by the government to interfere in the functioning of the RTI machinery.

Quite simply, the new Bill plans to change Sections 13 and 16 of the RTI Act of 2005. Essentially, the terms of CIC and SIC are fixed (five years or 65 whichever is earlier). Also, the salaries of CIC and SIC are equal to the Chief Election Commissioner and the State Chief Secretary respectively.

Now, as per the change envisaged, the Central government will have the powers to decide both on the tenure and the salaries and conditions of the appointed persons.

From a system of well-settled rules to one of ambiguities is in itself a move in the wrong direction. And that this is being attempted in the RTI Act makes the situation even more worrisome. The government, of course, has the numbers both in the LS and the RS (it can work out some 'nifty' arrangements) to see this through. And therein lies the rub!

RTI activists feel that the government move is clearly aimed at harming the independence and autonomy of the RTI body. "Whoever is appointed by the Centre can get himself/herself a cushy deal as long as he/she is pliable to the government. This is the disaster written in the proposed change," says Mridula Shankar, a well-known RTI activist in Mumbai.

The activists are planning a nation-wide protest to confront the government on this. The Centre should understand that by tampering a people-centric system, it is only scoring a massive self-goal.