By Ananya Sharma
The Right to Information (Amendment) Bill, 2019 has served just one purpose, and that is to weaken the existing (sort of) robust law. Someone once said, you never bite that hand that feeds you. Some might assume that it was with this intention that Section 13, 16 and 27 of the RTI Act, 2005 were recently amended. The author wishes to maintain that ‘some’ would say that, the author is well aware of the amendments to the Anti-Terror Bill. Prevention is better than cure, you see.
Lets’ dive deeper, or shallower into this mess now, shall we? The Bill was introduced by the Minister of State for Personnel Grievances and Pensions on June 19, 2019 and the same was passed by the Lok Sabha on July 22, 2019. We must appreciate how quick it was passed though, “Good job, Lok Sabha”. But then as Terence Fletcher in the really nice movie ‘Whiplash’ said “There are no two words in the English language more harmful than good job”. Well, seems true in this case.
The amending act brought out changes into two major aspects of the existing law, first, the term of office for the Information Commissioners at the Centre and the State level and second, the determination of salary for the same. My only reaction after reading the amendment was, “But umhm why would you do that, hmm?” What purpose does it serve other than, as ‘some’ would say weakening the law? The government in defense of the amendment said, and I request your attention here, that the reason is that the status of the Information officers was equivalent to that of election commissioners which means that they were in turn equal to Supreme Court Judges. Now they said, since their decisions are appealed to in courts, the status aspect was creating a problem. Um Alright? Some things are beyond man’s grasp or understanding, aren’t they? So do we, the humble Homo Sapiens just accept the nature of things as they are? We haven’t before so why now, right?
Let’s see how the Information Officers (IC) are appointed within the RTI Act. Section 12, sub clause 3 lays down almost beautifully that the President would appoint him on the recommendation of three people, and they are, *drumroll*, the Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition and the Union Cabinet Minister (who guess what is also nominated by the Prime Minister.) Further, at the State level, the Governor shall appoint the State Chief Information Commissioner on recommendation of, the Chief Minister, the Leader of the Opposition and the Cabinet Minister who is also nominated by the Chief Minister. They basically act like the three fates in this classic, soon to be, Greek Tragedy.
Now that we know how they are appointed, let’s go over the amendments. So, earlier Section 13(2) said, “You shall serve for a period of five years or till you attain the age of 65 whichever is earlier.” Now it roars, “The Central Government shall notify you your term of office, okay?” Similar is the case for the State Information Commissioners. The second amendment reads the exact same line i.e. “the Central Government shall notify” but only this time, it is copy pasted right next to the phrase, “salaries and allowances” under Section 13(5) and 16(5). The answer from the brilliant minds who voted for this Bill to the cribbing lot is that they did retain the aspect of “shall not be varied to their disadvantage after appointment”.
In conclusion, the author would just say a silent prayer (and request you to join me) for the lucky men and women who will be appointed as Information Officers in the future. Repeat after me, “I pray wholeheartedly, that in the interest of transparency and democratic spirit, may thee remain autonomous.” (Or at least try to.)