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Ex-information commissioners, activists slam bill amending RTI Act

twitter-logo PTI        Last Updated: July 22, 2019  | 22:27 IST

New Delhi, Jul 22 (PTI) Lawmakers, former information commissioners and activists on Monday condemned a bill amending the RTI Act which was passed in the Lok Sabha, saying it would "undermine the independence of information commissions". Social activist Aruna Roy, who fought a long battle to bring in the transparency law in 2005, said it was a regressive move aimed at undermining the independence of information commissions. Former information commissioner Sridhar Acharyulu said the Right to Information (Amendment) Bill, 2019 would be a "stab in the back" for the CIC and a "deathblow" to the act. "This means legislative safeguard to the term of commissioner is abolished and the government of the day will be empowered to prescribe any term, stature or salary," he said. The Lok Sabha on Monday passed the bill, amid objections by the opposition which alleged that it was an attempt to undermine the law and make the transparency panel a "toothless tiger". A voluntary group, the National Campaign for Peoples' Right to Information, took out a march at Rafi Marg here to register its protest against the amendment. Several politicians from opposition parties, former information commissioners and activists joined the march. CPI general secretary D Raja said the BJP was using its brute majority to push through amendments which undermine peoples' rights. He said the government was completely opposed to transparency and cited the introduction of electoral bonds which allow anonymous donations to political parties. RJD leader Manoj Jha said it was the peoples' commitment that had saved the RTI law till now and it was imperative that nationwide protests were organised to save it. Anjali Bhardwaj and Nikhil Dey, co-convenors of the NCPRI, said that protests were being planned across the country. They urged parties to demand that the RTI amendment bill be referred to a parliamentary committee to allow proper debate on it and also allow people to send in their views. The CIC had given several important orders, including those related to disclosure of NPAs, names of loan defaulters, educational qualifications of political leaders, details of demonetisation, which, they said, show the need for having safeguards to ensure independence and autonomy of information commissions. Information commissions in the country are the highest adjudicating authority in the matters of the RTI Act with powers to penalise errant officers not delivering timely information to people. People can exercise their right to seek information from the government on a payment of Rs 10. They can also approach the commissions if information is not provided within mandatory 30 days or they are provided with incomplete or incorrect information. The Central Information Commission, which deals with the central government, is headed by the Chief Information Commissioner with 10 more members called information commissioners. They are chosen by a panel comprising the prime minister, the leader of the largest opposition party in the Lok Sabha and a member of the Union Cabinet. The RTI Act 2005 gives them a fixed tenure of five years or till reaching the age of 65 years, whichever is earlier. Their salary and allowances are also at par with the election commissioners. The amendments will allow the government to prescribe the term of office, salaries, allowances and other terms and conditions of service of the CIC and information commissioners on a case-to-case basis. First chief information commissioner of the country Wajahat Habibullah said that statutorily protected tenure and terms of service of information commissioners were crucial to allow them to work without fear or favour. He said it was not a question of whether the CIC or the SIC are constitutional bodies or not, but they were supposed to give "neutral and unbiased" reports on the functioning of the government and its constituents which was not possible without these powers. Activist lawyer Prashant Bhushan said the government was trying to undermine the RTI Act as they want to hide information which would expose their misdeeds. "Citing recent cases, he said the government was refusing to disclose information on who travels with the prime minister on his foreign travels, on the Rafale scam, on sources of BJP's funds and also on which corporates were being awarded contracts," a statement quoted him as saying. Lucknow-based RTI activist Nutan Thakur had a different take and said this would bring accountability for information commissioners. "The government, in any case, is appointing former bureaucrats as information commissioners whereas the act says people from different walks of life should be inducted in the commission. The changes will ensure that they are held accountable as their fixed tenure will be removed," she said. M M Ansari, a former information commissioner, said the government was destroying democratic institutions and now RTI Act was the target. "Corruption-related information with the PMO, the Reserve Bank of India and PSUs are denied. (Use of) electoral bonds for political donations is an opaque policy," he said. Another former information commissioner, Shailesh Gandhi, said that because of the opaque system of appointing information commissioners, most of them tend to follow the government's desires. "Some information commissioners do show independence and give decisions not liked by those with power. This move appears to downgrade them and make them caged parrots mimicking 'His Master's Voice'," he said. PTI ABS AAR

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