Opposition parties and citizens are protesting over the government's bid to weaken India's Right to Information Act. Photo: Raveendran / AFP

India’s biggest transparency law is being dismantled piece by piece, as the Narendra Modi government pushed through key changes this week. The law, known as the Right to Information Act, was passed 13 years ago and changed the way Indians could access hitherto secret government information.

A proposed amendment to the act was passed on Monday by the Lower House of the Parliament amid strong protests by opposition parties, who accused the federal government of trying to dilute the landmark law. The bill is now listed for consideration and passage in the Upper House.

The bill seeks to amend the Right to Information Act (RTI), 2005 to empower the central government to decide the tenure and conditions for information commissioners at both central and state levels.

The move has been criticized by opposition parties as a bid to ‘murder RTI’. Experts say that this will dilute the law and take away the autonomy of the Central Information Commission (CIC), which is the highest appellate body on information applications.

Under the act, any Indian citizen can ask for information from the government and public service providers. The same is provided to him or her with few exceptions such as information that can jeopardize national security. When information is denied to a person who filed an RTI application, he or she can appeal to the first appellate body. If the request is denied again, they can appeal to the central or state information commissions.

If that occurs, “the law enables the information commission to compel the government to provide that information and penalize erring officials. This is inconvenient for the government,” said Anjali Bharadwaj, RTI activist and co-convener of the National Campaign for People’s Right to Information.

Several lawmakers also noted that the bill was introduced in a secretive manner. And it was handed to them only two days before it was tabled, with the government completely skipping the mandatory public disclosure and consultation on draft legislation. Trinamool Congress lawmaker Derek O’Brien tweeted on Tuesday that the bill was set to be passed with “zero scrutiny”.

Controversial amendments

The Modi government’s bill seeks to amend sections 13, 16 and 27 of the RTI Act. These sections give five years fixed tenure to the chief central and state information commissioners and their salary and allowances are commensurate with the Chief Election Commissioner and Election Commissioners respectively. The amendment will enable the central government to determine the pay, allowances, tenure and service conditions of the information commissioners.

In an unprecedented move, seven former Information Commissioners came together on Tuesday to address a press conference and outline their opposition to the amendments.

Yashovardhan Azad, a former information commissioner, also opposed the proposed changes. A career intelligence officer, Azad became a commissioner after retiring from the Intelligence Bureau. He believes the government’s intentions are dubious.

“Here is a system, the RTI regime, that has been running for the last 15 years without any problem. The things the government wants to fix were already done in 2004 when the original bill went to a select committee of the parliament. It allowed great autonomy to the information commissioners,” he said.

In the upper house, where the Modi government lacks a majority, 15 opposition parties have written a letter asking for the Bill to be sent to a select committee for further consultation.

“The government is trying to centralize the commissions by controlling tenure and salaries [of information commissioners]. They want to make a puppet out of the Information Commission. Puppets do not help the right to information and hence, we oppose it,” Manoj Jha, MP and RJD spokesperson, told Asia Times.

While introducing the amendment bill in the Lower House, Union Minister Jitendra Singh said that the Information Commission was a statutory body and it was an anomaly to equate it to a constitutional body like the Election Commission. “Hence, their status and service conditions need to be rationalized accordingly,” the bill says.

Singh said that having Information Commissioners equal to the status of Election Commissioners meant that they were on a par with Supreme Court judges. He argued before Parliament that since CIC’s orders can be challenged before high courts, the body cannot be equal to Supreme Court judges.

Countering the government’s argument, former chief election commissioner Wajahat Habibullah said: “The information commission is the last court of appeal for exercising the fundamental right to information. The enforcement of Article 19 (1A) [freedom of speech and expression] of the Constitution is the responsibility of the information commission. The logical way of the ‘rationalization’ course would be to make the information commission a constitutional authority.” Habibullah, who was the first chief information commissioner appointed, said the changes would make the hitherto independent commissioners beholden to the government.

Former information commissioner Shailesh Gandhi told Asia Times: “The courts are approached not for appeals against the commission but approached in writ jurisdiction. The president or the governor of a state are routinely challenged under writ jurisdiction. Singh’s argument would imply that the president and the governors are all below the high court level.”

Meanwhile, other critics said the move would breach federalism rights, as it would affect state information bodies.

RTI against government

Not surprisingly, the government’s commitment to accountability is now being questioned.

“The bill is an attempt to control the information commission. Other than the Supreme Court, no other commission or tribunal has given orders that had made successive governments uncomfortable. Hence, the government (both current and previous) has tried to amend the law on three occasions, which were heavily opposed,” Gandhi said.

The RTI Act has been a thorn in the Modi government’s side. When state-run universities blocked RTI requests for the prime minister’s educational degrees, the CIC gave directions allowing inspection of the Delhi University’s exam records of 1978.

Another RTI query revealed that Modi and his Council of Ministers spent 3.9 billion rupees on foreign and domestic travel over five years. And the government’s stunning expenditure of 43 billion rupees in five years on publicity and advertisements was also revealed via an RTI query.

The government did not respond to Asia Times’ e-mails or phone calls by the time this report was written.

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