RTI Act Amendment

  • Category
    Polity & Governance
  • Published
    6th Aug, 2019

Parliament passed the Right to Information (Amendment) Bill, 2019, amid uproars that changes diluted the crucial transparency law.

Issue

Context

Parliament passed the Right to Information (Amendment) Bill, 2019, amid uproars that changes diluted the crucial transparency law.

Background

Information empowers and enables people; pushes them towards exercising their legal, social, economic and political rights. It spreads awareness among citizens and creates a culture of transparency and accountability so as to make the system of governance of a nation closer to impeccability.

In India, it all started with petitions of the press to the Supreme Court, relating to issues of enforcement of the right to freedom of speech and expression. Access to information was realised as being a key tool to fight corruption and wrongdoing, the public has a right to scrutinise the actions of its leaders and engage them into a full and open debate - the free flow information is a must for a society so diverse in its mind-sets.

The Supreme Court, in State of U.P v. Raj Narain - a 1974 case, recognized the ‘right to know’ as a right inherent in Fundamental Right to freedom of speech and expression guaranteed under Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution.

Consequently, The Right to Information (RTI) Act 2005 was thus passed to empower the citizens, promote transparency and accountability in the working of the Government, contain corruption, and make our democracy work for the people in real sense.

Right to Information (RTI) Act 2005

Under the RTI Act, 2005, Public Authorities are required to make suo moto disclosures on various aspects of their structure and functioning. This includes:

  1. The disclosure on their organisation, functions, and structure.
  2. The powers and duties of its officers and employees.
  3. The financial information.
  • The intent of such disclosures is that the public should need minimum recourse through the Act to obtain such information.
  • If such information is not made available, citizens have the right to request for it from the Authorities.
  • This may include information in the form of documents, files, or electronic records under the control of the Public Authority.
  • The intent behind the enactment of the Act is to promote transparency and accountability in the working of Public Authorities.

Meaning of the Term ‘Public Authorities’

  • ‘Public Authorities’ include bodies of self-government established under the Constitution, or under any law or government notification.
  • For instance, these include Union Ministries, Public Sector Undertakings, and Regulators.
  • It also includes any entities owned, controlled or substantially financed and non-government organizations substantially financed directly or indirectly by funds provided by the government.

We can include the recent controversy of Judiciary being under RTI

Enforcement of RTI in India

  • The Act has established a three tier structure for enforcing the right to information guaranteed under the Act.
  • Public Authorities designate some of their officers as Public Information Officers. 
  • The first request for information goes to Central/State Assistant Public Information Officer and Central/State Public Information Officer, designated by the Public Authorities.
  • These Officers are required to provide information to an RTI applicant within 30 days of the request. 
  • Appeals from their decisions go to an Appellate Authority. 
  • Appeals against the order of the Appellate Authority go to the State Information Commission or the Central Information Commission. 
  • These Information Commissions consists of a Chief Information Commissioner, and up to 10 Information Commissioners. 

The Right to Information (RTI) Act has shown an early promise by exposing wrongdoings at high places, such as in the organisation of the Commonwealth Games, and the allocation of 2G spectrum and coal blocks. However, it now faces multiple challenges.

In issues – only IAS officers occupy the key positions,

Issues with RTI Act 2005

  • Lack of awareness amongst the citizens and various constraints like fees, complicated procedures faced by them.
  • The Information commissions can only direct public authorities to take necessary steps to comply with the Act, but cannot enforce if such directions are ignored.
  • The Central and State Information Commissions have been functioning with less than their prescribed maximum strength of eleven because governments have not shown enthusiasm in making appointments.
  • Vacancies lead to delay in disposal of cases, which is further compounded by the backlog in the High Courts, where a number of decisions of the commission are challenged.
  • Numerous frivolous queries often continue along genuine ones leading to clogging of the RTI system.
  • Suo motu disclosure required under RTI Act has remained unsatisfactory.
  • Lack of infrastructure, staff and proper training to information officers.
  • It has several limited provisions for organisations like judiciary, legislature and law enforcement agencies.

Though these challenges were already a drag on the efficient working of Information Commissioners, the new amendments proposed by the government further dilutes the provisions and powers of RTI Act.

Right to Information (Amendment) Bill, 2019

Key Provisions

The Bill changes the terms and conditions of service of the CIC and Information Commissioners at the centre and in states.

Comparison of the provisions of the Right to Information Act, 2005 and the Right to Information (Amendment) Bill, 2019

</table border+'1'> Issues with the New AmendmentsThe bill threatens to dilute the autonomy of the Information Commissions at the Centre as well as states in the following ways:

  • Doing away with the equivalence of the Central Information Commissioners with the Election Commissioners on the ground that the two have different mandate will send a message that transparency is less important for a democracy than holding of free and fair elections is preposterous.
  • Replacing the existing fixed five-year tenure of the Information Commissioners with tenure as prescribed by the government would make the tenure largesse to be bestowed by the government.
  • It’s against federalism as the Central government will also control through rules, the terms and conditions of appointment of Commissioners in the States.

Protecting citizens’ right to information is a cause important enough for adjudicating authorities to be vested with high status and security of tenure. Given the extent to which the RTI Act has empowered citizens and helped break the hold of vested interests over the administration, the law has always faced a threat from many in power. The RTI Act was a consensus law and a product of public consultation. Thus it should be strengthened rather than weakening.Way Forward

  • Transparency law should be strengthened in line with Supreme Court judgements that right to information is being integral to the right to free expression under Article 19(1)(a).
  • The law needs to be amended to bring about full compliance by government departments and agencies that receive substantial funding from the exchequer.
  • Every public authority should computerise their records for wide dissemination and proactively publish certain categories of information so that the citizens need minimum recourse to request for information formally.
  • Amendments should be widely discussed by citizens and RTI activists in the public domain before converting them into law.
  • People should be united, organised and more vigilant about work in government sector to make this act successful and fight against corruption and unlawful activities.

ConclusionThe RTI has unshackled millions of users who will continue to use this democratic right creatively and to dismantle exclusive power. The RTI has been and will be used to withstand attacks on it-self and strengthen the movement for transparency and accountability in India. Government will realise that while it might be able to amend a law, it cannot stop a movement.

Provision

RTI Act, 2005

RTI (Amendment) Bill, 2019

Term

The Chief Information Commissioner (CIC) and Information Commissioners (ICs) (at the central and state level) will hold office for a term of five years. 

The Bill removes this provision and states that the central government will notify the term of office for the CIC and the ICs.

Salary

The salary of the CIC and ICs (at the central level) will be equivalent to the salary paid to the Chief Election Commissioner and Election Commissioners, respectively. 

 The Bill removes these provisions and states that the salaries, allowances, and other terms and conditions of service of the central and state CIC and ICs will be determined by the central government.

Deductions in Salary

The Act states that at the time of the appointment of the CIC and ICs (at the central and state level), if they are receiving pension or any other retirement benefits for previous government service, their salaries will be reduced by an amount equal to the pension. 

The Bill removes these provisions.

Learning Aid

Practice Question:

Do you think that holding free and fair elections is more important than promoting transparency? Critically examine in light of recent amendments to the RTI Act.

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